The History of Women in Engineering

January 31, 2017     #teaching

This week in my graduate seminar on Technology & Gender, we will be discussing Ruth Oldenziel’s Making Technology Masculine: Men, Women and Modern Machines in America, 1870-1945. As a complement to that discussion, we will be analyzing a remarkable set of primary source documents on the history of women in technology. The documents are a series of letters exchanged between the presidents of various engineering schools in the United States in the fall of 1917, and are part of one of my favorite stories about the importance of serendipitous discovery in historical research.

In the spring of 2005 I was a relatively new faculty member in the History & Sociology of Science department at the University of Pennsylvania, and had just finished teaching an undergraduate survey course on the history of technology. One of the topics we covered was the history of women in engineering.

A few weeks after the end of the semester one of my most excellent students, a Penn undergraduate named Joan Lee, came to my office with a collection of documents she had found in a dumpster. Joan was teaching in a summer program aimed a teaching girls and boys about science and technology, and went looking for some waste paper out of which to construct paper airplanes. What she found was a set of letters to and from John Frazer, the then dean of the Towne Scientific School at the University of Pennsylvania. In early November 1917, Frazer had written to the deans or presidents of all of major engineering or technical colleges in the United States, asking them about their policies on admitting women to their programs. The responses came from Stanford, Cornell, Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, Wellesley, Berkeley, University of Michigan, University of Illinois, Washington University of St. Louis, Case Western, Brooklyn Polytechnic, Tulane, University of Virginia, Georgia Tech, and the Stevens Institute of Technology. The results are fascinating and, in some cases, surprising.

At the time, Penn was touting its (relatively) long and admirable history of admitting women. Sadly, the tragic conclusion of this chain of letters shows that this was not true of its engineering departments. But in any case, what a remarkable opportunity for a history of science student to experience, as an undergraduate, the challenges and pleasures of doing historical research.

You can find the document collection here. Be sure to read the final two letters, which bring the episode through to its sad conclusion in 1921. Then go read Oldenziel’s book, because although these letters provide excellent insight into what the Deans of engineering schools thought about the role of women in engineering at the turn of the 20th century, they are a terrible reflection of the actual presence of women in engineering in this period.

Technology and Gender

January 09, 2017     #teaching

For the spring 2017 semester I will be offering a new graduate seminar that explores the intersection of technology and gender. In part this will develop my long-term interest in the history of women in computing, but will also include the emerging literature on masculinity and computing and queer computing.

The syllabus for the course can be found here, but I have also made public a Github repository that includes an extensive bibliography. Feel free to clone or fork. I would like this to be maintained and extended to serve as a useful resource for other scholars and students working in this field.

The Multiple Meanings of a Flowchart

July 31, 2016     #publications

From the very earliest days of electronic computing, flowcharts have been used to represent the conceptual structure of complex software systems. In much of the literature on software development, the flowchart serves as the central design document around which systems analysts, computer programmers, and end users communicate, negotiate, and represent complexity. And yet the meaning of any particular flowchart was often highly contested, and the apparent specificity of such design documents rarely reflected reality. Flowcharts were rarely “true, ” but they were nevertheless useful. In the latest issue of the journal Information & Culture, I explore the “Multiple Meanings of the Flowchart”.

For those of you without access to the Project Muse academic database, you can find an earlier draft version of the paper for free online here.

History of Computer Dating

July 23, 2016     #media

National Geographic has produced an excellent series on the history of sex and sexuality. As part of that series, they ran an episode on sex and technology. If you watch closely, you can see me talking about the history of computer dating.

I first developed this history for a lectured called “Love and Sprockets” that I developed for my I202: Introduction to Social Informatics course. It turns out IU holds a special place in this history.

University Trustee Teaching Award

April 28, 2016     #teaching

I am pleased and honored to have been awarded the 2015-2016 Indiana University Trustees Teaching Award. Many thanks to my students, teaching assistants, and colleagues who helped make this possible!

SHIFT-CTRL at Stanford

April 20, 2016     #research #media

In early May I will speaking at the SHIFT-CTRL conference at Stanford University. The conference, which is being convened by Tom Mullaney and Ben Allen is aimed at exploring new directions in scholarship on computing and new media that “engages meaningfully with questions of gender, culture, language, ethnicity, and class.” The scholarly line-up that they have arranged is impressive. This is an exciting way to end the spring conference season. I will be presenting on my global environmental history of computing project.