Sunday, January 3rd, 2021 Alive 18,149 days
I got a new Atari cartridge today. Itʼs Checkers, the Sears Tele-Games version of Atariʼs Video Checkers.
Sears wins for having the better title here. Sure, it is played on a video screen, but calling it “Video” checkers is one of those “No shit, Sherlock” situations.
As checkers go, I think it must be a very good game. I say this because I always lose.
The yammering yabbos on the internet are wild about this game because it was programmed by Carol Shaw. I have nothing against Ms. Shaw, and from what Iʼve read, she seems like a very nice person. But she is repeatedly cited as — in the words of Wikipedia — “one of the earliest female programmers.” This is only true if you ignore the hundreds of women programmers who came before her.
A lot of those programmers were nuns. Nuns played an oversized, and under-recognized role in the early days of computing. There are a few reasons they were involved.
- First, nuns were highly educated. They taught every level of education from kindergarten to college.
- Because they were educators, they were deeply embedded in academia, which is where so much of the early development of computers happened.
- Nuns could think and reason and plan. The average person today doesnʼt know enough history to understand that the first C.E.O.ʼs were nuns. They ran massive hospital systems and orphanages. They invented what today we call the logistics industry, because they needed to support complex systems. Even today, 26% of the planetʼs healthcare facilities are run by the Roman Catholic Church, which means there are nuns in charge of all sorts of things.
- And hereʼs the big one: nuns could type.
In old photographs of people working in mainframe computer rooms in the 1960ʼs and 70ʼs, there are always women around. The men are thinking and looking at printouts and working with slide rules and pencils, but itʼs the women in the pictures doing most of the actual computing. Women were far more common in the computer industry in the early days than they are today.
And even before electronic computers, if you go back to the earliest day of computers, when a “computer” was a person who computes, there were women. Big businesses had rooms full of people clicking away at various mechanical tabulating machines. These people were the companyʼs “computers,” and very often those rooms were full of women. Not men.
When computers first showed up in my school in 1980, the nuns steered the girls to them, while the boys were discouraged from using computers. Why? Because typing was a skill for girls. “Boys donʼt type,” I was told.
This continued into my high school years. I wanted to take a typing class because I had a computer at home. I was told that boys werenʼt allowed to take typing classes.
Even into the 1990ʼs, parts of the business world were still organized around the notion that men were the bosses, and women typed for them, and having the women run the computers was a natural extension of that. My mother worked in Manhattan for the vice president of a mid-sized regional bank. He never used e-mail. Each morning my mother would print out his e-mails and give them to him to read. He would then dictate the responses, which she wrote in steno, and later typed into the computer and sent the responses.
But nuns arenʼt cool today, especially on the internet, so they get ignored. Nuns are one of the types of women that otherwise enlightened people still think itʼs OK to marginalize. Sister Mary Kenneth Keller was the first person in the world to earn a doctorate in computer science, but there are plenty of people on Wikipedia, and elsewhere, who try to suppress knowledge of her contributions in the field.
A complicating factor is that a lot of the work that nuns did in computing was before Atari even existed, and itʼs hard for many people on the internet to imagine there were programmers before the internet, let alone before Atari. And certainly not women programmers. They didnʼt exist until the STEM campaigns of the late 1990ʼs, in their minds.
Still, some day Iʼd like to take Ms. Shaw to coffee to hear her stories about the early days of video game programming. I think her memories are probably worth bottling and saving for posterity.