I need to find a programming job in San Francisco in 1953.
August 13, 2014 7:30 PM   Subscribe

Story research filter: My imagination was sparked by a recent comment about how computer programming was considered a suitable career for women in the 1950s and 60s, akin to clerical work. I'd like to learn more about what working life might have been like for these women, and about computing in general at that time. Bonus points if you can help me name some companies in 1950s San Francisco that might have employed my character.

I'm particularly interested in the 1950s, the earlier the better. Some more specific questions: What would a woman programmer's average day have looked like? What were the physical tools she would use to do her job--punch cards, or something else...? What was the field like? Were most jobs in the military? At technology companies? Or were there common applications for computers at non-tech companies this early on? What were the aims or goals of computer programming in the 1950s; what problems were people trying to solve?

I'm interested in both anecdotes and sources for further reading. Right now I'm not even sure what to look for.

Bonus question: I'd love to know exactly where in San Francisco (not Silicon Valley) my character might have worked.
posted by sunset in snow country to Technology (22 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
The person you want to research is Admiral Grace Hopper.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:51 PM on August 13, 2014

Grace Hopper is a personal hero of mine, but she actually may not be the best person to research for this - as an admiral and someone working at the highest echelons of the field, her experience would be very different than that of the average female programmer. Looking in to her life is a good starting point, but you should bear the differences in mind.
posted by Itaxpica at 8:08 PM on August 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

The one thing I am reasonbly sure of: San Francisco had no significant computing-intensive industries in the 1950s. Research into semi-conductors (and other hardware) yes. Cypher or programming like Bell in Manhattan or MIT no. There may be exceptions but they would be unusual! It's a tough setting for this character. If it did exist it would more likely be at Stanford in Silicon Valley imo.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:10 PM on August 13, 2014

Seconding Grace Hopper. About ENIAC. Some images. At JPL. Decent WaPo overview. In pop culture, Katherine Hepburn stars in Desk Set, sponsored by IBM. Cosmo famously weighs in.
posted by carmicha at 8:13 PM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

The 1950s were the UNIVAC era. The SF Bay era became "Silicon Valley as we know it" only after the creation/implosion of Shockley Semiconductor, though the core of "big science" in the area was being done by SRI and Lawrence Livermore (which, as part of the Atomic Energy Commission, purchased a UNIVAC).
posted by deanc at 8:22 PM on August 13, 2014

In 1953 a private company using computers was pretty bleeding edge. See Wikipedia, which says that the first use of a computer for business applications ever was in late 1951, in the UK, and that GE bought the first commercial computer in the US in 1953, to run its payroll.

My boyfriend's grandmother was a programmer in the 60s? working for a shoe company in Tennessee, their use case was also payroll.

Government was a big consumer of computers at the time -- military uses obviously, but the US Census and the Social Security Administration were also major customers. I don't know if they would have been in San Francisco. Academia would be a potential consumer too, but there aren't any major universities in San Francisco proper.
posted by phoenixy at 8:25 PM on August 13, 2014

IBM has a timeline of the history of women in their company with plenty of names you could follow up on. You may not want to limit yourself to SF/SV locations, as much of the early history of computing happened outside of california. The eniac programmers project might also be of some help.
posted by Poldo at 8:37 PM on August 13, 2014

It occurs to me that there may be a confusion of terms here. The word "computer" underwent a dramatic redefinition in the 1950's.

In 1940, a "computer" was a woman sitting at a desk with a mechanical calculator, doing routine calculations on huge bodies of data. Typically computers operated in dozens or hundreds in big offices.

They were used for all kinds of things. One example is the Manhattan Project: there were tremendous amounts of calculations which were necessary in order to figure out exactly how much uranium or plutonium was a critical mass, among other things.

Electronic computers (as we know them) don't really become common until the mid 1950's.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:39 PM on August 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

This 1958 news clip from the BBC on how computers work both explains at a high level how computers work (if you work in an assembly language today, it's still comparable) and at around 4:55 purports to show a woman typing in instructions on paper tape and executing a program, though it's not clear how much of that is a staged demo.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 8:59 PM on August 13, 2014

Some great answers so far, thank you! Just wanted to add that I am definitely flailing in the dark a bit here, and if any of the parameters I've set are patently ridiculous, feel free to let me know (as some of you already have). I am attached to the early 1950s and San Francisco for my story for non-programming related reasons, but may end up shifting gears a bit depending on what I learn.

I also forgot to ask about education--would most of these women have been college-educated?
posted by sunset in snow country at 9:13 PM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

There might still have been a few human computers in the 50s - it was very much a transitional period - and they were very likely to be women (often women frustrated with sexist obstacles in the way of more creative work). You might also consider a job in telegraphy, which employed many women, and was another precursor of information technology the equivalents of which fall under computing today.
posted by wobdev at 9:21 PM on August 13, 2014

It's also important to understand: the "programmer" role at that time was much lower-skill than most of the roles we'd describe as programmer roles today. It was essentially doing what compiler programs do today (translating from a higher-level language to machine code) manually, with some physical manipulation (e.g. punching cards) thrown in. The programmer would often have very little idea of the purpose of the work they were doing.
posted by wobdev at 9:26 PM on August 13, 2014

You might want to connect with author Ellen Ullman. She wrote a novel about a female IT worker in the Bay Area in the 1980s (The Bug), and she wrote an earlier novel set in 1970s San Francisco.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:27 PM on August 13, 2014

deanc is right that what was then the Livermore Radiation Laboratory ordered a UNIVAC computer, certainly one of the first in the Bay Area. You can see pictures of some women operating it but that is 40 miles east of San Francisco and was considered really out in the sticks at that point. Computers back then cost the equivalent of millions of dollars, and before networking and time-sharing operating systems, someone had to physically show up to program the thing, and come back later to retrieve the output on paper. Any programmer, operator, or user of the computer would have been in close physical proximity.
posted by wnissen at 10:04 PM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I can't help you with the SF aspect, but this story about female programmers in the UK, from the 1960s-1980s might give you some good starting points for research.
posted by Joh at 10:24 PM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Silicon Valley" wasn't a thing until the era of Intel and Zilog, say about 1975. In the 1950's San Jose was just a town. And the Bay Area, including San Francisco, was not really considered a major concentration of high tech.

As has been pointed out above, computers were rare and expensive in the 1950's. They really start becoming more common about 1960.

The first commercial all-transistor computers were the "Philco Transac models S-1000 scientific computer and S-2000 electronic data processing computer". They came out in 1957.

IBM's first transistor computers were the 7000 series. The first of those was the 7070, in 1958.

But this was all really new -- and really expensive -- and they weren't widely deployed for years. It's only about 1970 (well into the IBM 360 era) that it became normal for a medium sized business to have its own computer. And it was even longer before colleges and universities did.

All of which is to say that what you're asking for is a huge anachronism. It just wasn't like that in the 1950's -- not in the Bay area, and not really anywhere at all.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:02 AM on August 14, 2014

I think you might try asking someone at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. They have an online exhibit that mentions the 1956 shipment of a 305 RAMAC to Zellerbach Paper in San Francisco (IBM 305 RAMAC) as an historic event. For more background on that, here's a brief talk about the history of IBM's San Jose Laboratory and a timeline/infographic about it starting with its founding in 1952. The talk mentions that IBM put the lab there to support customers in the aircraft industry. Zellerbach Paper apparently continued later to be pretty invested in new technology--it might not be a stretch to guess they also had interesting gear in 1953. Doubtless there are other candidates.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 12:30 AM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Incidentally, just googling a bit further, I suspect you'd be within the scope of artistic license to have a character working at Zellerbach Paper and using a not-new-anymore IBM 407 Accounting Machine which she or someone there ingeniously wires to do multiplication to improve the payroll process or some other accounting function. Knowing in your own mind that the punch cards came from an IBM punch card plant at 16th and St. John in San Jose (per that IBM San Jose talk) might be interesting. If you set the story in 1956, you could mention transitioning from that machine to the 305 RAMAC. If you set it in 1959, you could include moving it to the Crown Zellerbach Building.

I'm not saying these details are super exciting or part of the usual history people talk about, but that article about rewiring the 407 seems pretty clever, and being at the scene of the first computer with magnetic disks would be kind of neat.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 1:16 AM on August 14, 2014

Klára von Neumann, for starters. This article has some other pointers.
posted by scruss at 7:09 AM on August 14, 2014

Your time frame is very early. IIRC, the first IBM commercial computer was about 1955.

The early involvement of women goes back to WWII when women were hired to compute artillery tables and the like. It was rote work. Early computer programming also required a lot of rote work turning instructions into numerical codes. One of the women noted that their task was so well defined that it could be done by computer which was the beginning of assembly language and the the FORTRAN language. This was at United Aircraft, a very big name in early computing, circa 1952.

Early computing involved long program listings and big stacks of 80 column punch cards. Programmers would write out their code, and it would be punched into cards using a machine with a keyboard. Anything important wwouldalso be verified, essentially going through the machine twice to find errors.

Most rote work was done by women especial keypunching. The remarkable women mentioned fought for their chance.

The punch card technology goes back to Hollerith and the 1890 (?) Census. By the time the computers came about, a lot of commercial tasks were being done by punching and sorting cards.

Look up the Museum of Computing in Boston. Among the exhibits is a programmer's office from 1960. It gave me chills to see it.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:54 AM on August 14, 2014

Look into the women who worked at Bletchley Park during WW2 in codebreaking. There were WRENs (female) who operated the Colossus computer. I think there were also women "programmers" working on the ENIAC computer during WW2 at the University of Pennsylvania. What if your character was one of those women, and she moved to SF after WW2?

I'd suggest watching the TV show Bletchley Park for some inspirational background on how your character might have been greatly valued for her skills during WW2 but then been expected to go back to a more traditional non-technical role as homemaker in the 1950s. So maybe she is not employed as a programmer, but she still has the skills.
posted by Joh at 11:24 AM on August 14, 2014

I also forgot to ask about education--would most of these women have been college-educated?

When I started out in the industry in the mid '80s, one of my first jobs was in a 'data processing' department where ~70% of the programmers were women. At that time probably only ~50% of the programmers were university educated, and most of them in areas outside the common [today] fields of electrical engineering & computer science. You simply wouldn't have been able to find a computer science course in the '50s.

I would expect that programmers in the '50s would have had a similar proportion of 'college' education as the general population [i.e. much lower than is common today], and those would have been in largely unrelated fields.

"Silicon Valley" wasn't a thing until the era of Intel and Zilog, say about 1975. In the 1950's San Jose was just a town. And the Bay Area, including San Francisco, was not really considered a major concentration of high tech.

The founding of what we now know as Silicon Valley as a technology hub is generally considered to date to 1953 when Varian Associates became the first company to move to Stanford Industrial Park in Palo Alto.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 8:03 PM on August 14, 2014

« Older How to get the smell of dog urine out of clothes?   |   Someone's car hit my mailbox and left, should I... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.