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Computer history: “Women’s ideas would have radically changed our world”

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Computer history: “Women’s ideas would have radically changed our world”

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, this heise+ article was published freely readable.

Claire Evans is a true all-rounder: not only is she the singer and lyricist of the avant-garde pop group YACHT, she also writes articles and books and is the editor of an anthology of science fiction stories with an explicitly diverse approach. Her book “Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet”, which was published in 2018, has recently received a lot of attention again.

Claire, I learned from your book that after World War II, computing power wasn’t measured in megahertz or teraflops, it was measured in kilogirls. What did this value say anyway?

For almost 200 years, a computer wasn’t a thing. It was a job description. Someone who did calculations for a living. Women have done this work from the beginning because it was not considered particularly privileged or required any particular mathematical genius. Working as a human computer performing calculations for ballistics, seafaring, or other computationally intensive scientific tasks was considered crude mental work, much like working in a factory.

Then, when electromechanical computers came along, the question was, how fast can they handle the same problems? Can they do it at girl speed or even faster? One Kilogirl corresponds to 1000 human computers.

What motivated you to write this book?

I love computer history. I’ve read most of the great books on computer history. And all these books have one thing in common, which is that they very rarely talk about women. Based on my own experiences as a woman, I found it absolutely impossible that women were not in any of these stories. So, just out of curiosity, I started researching what was happening at the same time as one was hearing more iconic narratives from computer history — about men in Silicon Valley garages starting companies. And I thought: Something else must have happened.

And you absolutely had to write down this “other”?

Yes, that went from idle curiosity to sort of obsession, to a point of anger and frustration when I discovered that not only were women systematically excluded from the standard canon of this story, but that there were some truly fantastic stories out there. And these stories are just as revealing as the ones we know well. I think when I realized that, the book just had to be written.

So it’s also about visibility?

It’s about getting closer to the truth. I see this book as a feminist book, but I also see it as something that enriches the story. Each new perspective added to a historical period leads to a better understanding. Computer history is often portrayed as the product of a series of lonely geniuses who came up with brilliant ideas. But it was a very collective endeavor. I’m more concerned with telling a collective story than specifically a female or feminist one.

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