Book review: Broad Band by Claire L. Evans

Broad Band by Claire L. Evans book cover. Cream background with a silhouette of a woman made from circuit boards

This review is of Broad Band by Claire L. Evans, subtitled The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet. It is arranged thematically with each chapter focusing on a couple of women moving in time from the first chapter, about Ada Lovelace in the 19th century, through to the early years of the 21st century. The first part of the book covers the early period of computing up to the mid-sixties, the second part the growth of networked computing through the seventies and eighties with the final part covering the rise of the World Wide Web and services devoted to women.

The first chapter introduces us to Ada Lovelace, sometimes heralded as the first programmer which is a somewhat disputable claim. More importantly she was clearly a competent mathematician and excelled in democratising and explaining the potential of the mechanical computing engines that Charles Babbage was trying, and largely failing, to build. More broadly this chapter covers the work of the early human “computers”, who were often women, employed to carry out calculations for astronomical or military applications. Following on from this role, by 1946 250,000 women were working in telephone exchanges (presumably in the US).

Women gained this role as “computers” for a range of reasons. In the 19th century it was seen as acceptable work for educated women whose options were severely limited – as they would be for many years to come, excepting war time. The lack of alternatives meant they were very cheap to employ. Under the cover of this apparently administrative role of “computer” women made useful, original contributions to science albeit they were not recognised as such. Women were seen as good at this type of meticulous, routine work.

When the first electronic computers were developed in the later years of the Second World War it was unsurprising that women were heavily involved in their operation partly because of their previous roles, and partly because men had been sent to fight. There appears to have been an attitude that the design and construction of such machines was men’s work and their actual use, the physical act of programming was women’s work – often neglected by those men that built the machines.

It was in this environment that the now renowned Grace Hopper worked. She started writing what we would now describe as compilers to make the task of programming computers easier. She was also instrumental in creating the COBOL programming language, reviled by computer scientist in subsequent years but comprising 80% of the world’s code by the end of the 20th century. The process that Hopper used to create the language, a committee involving multiple companies working towards a common useful goal, looks surprisingly modern.

In the sixties there was a sea-change for women in computing, it was perceived that there was a shortage of programmers and the solution was to change programming into an engineering science which had the effect of gradually pushing women out of computing through the seventies. It was at this time that the power of computer networks started to be realised.

The next part of the book covers networking via a brief diversion into mapping the Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky which became the basis of the first network computer game: Colossal Cave Adventure. I was particularly impressed by Project One, a San Francisco commune which housed a mainframe computer (a Scientific Data Systems 940) which had been blagged from a company by Pam Hardt-English. In the early seventies it became the first bulletin board system (BBS) – a type of system which was to persist all the way through to the creation of the World Wide Web (and beyond). Broad Band also covers some of the later bulletin board systems founded by women which evolved into women’s places on the Web, BBS were majority male spaces for a long time. In the meantime Resource One also became the core of the San Francisco Social Services Referral Directory which persisted through until 2009, this was a radical innovation at the time – computers used for a social purpose outside of scientific or military applications.

The internet as we know it started with ARPANET in 1969. Broad Band covers two women involved in the early internet – Elizabeth (Jake) Feinler who was responsible for the Resource Handbook – a manually compiled directory of computers, and their handlers, on ARPANET. This evolved, under her guidance, to become the WHOIS service and host.domain naming convention for internet addresses. The second woman was Radia Perlman, who invented the Spanning Tree Protocol for ethernet whilst at DEC in 1984.

This brings us, in time, to the beginning of the World Wide Web. The World Wide Web grew out of the internet. Hypertext systems had been mooted since the end of the Second World War but it wasn’t until the eighties that they became technically feasible on widely available hardware. Broad Band cites British Wendy Hall and Cathy Marshall at Rank Xerox as contributors to the development of hypertext systems. These were to be largely swept away by Tim Berners-Lee’s HTML format which had the key feature of hyperlinking across different computers even if this made the handling of those links prone to decay – something handled better by other non-networked hypertext systems. The World Wide Web grew ridiculously quickly in the early nineties. Berners-Lee demonstrated a rather uninspiring version at HyperText ’91 and by HyperText ’94 he was keynote speaker.

There is a a brief chapter devoted to women in gaming. Apparently Barbie Fashion Designer sold 600,000 units in 1996 more than Doom and Quake! There was a brief period when games were made very explicitly for girls – led to a degree by Brenda Laurel who had done extensive research showing boys strive for mastery in games, whilst girls were looking for a collaborator to complete a task. These ideas held sway for a while before a more diverse gaming market took hold which didn’t divide games so much by gender.

It is tempting for me to say that where women have made their mark in computing and the internet is in forming communities, communicating the benefits of technology and making them easier to use – in a reprise of the early pioneering women in science – because that is what women are good at. However, this is the space in which women have been allowed by men – it is not a question of innate ability alone.

I found this book really interesting, it is more an entry point into the topic of women in computing than a comprehensive history. It has made me nostalgic for my computing experiences of the eighties and nineties, and I have added a biography of Grace Hopper to my reading list.