Excluded Computers: Marie Hicks’s Programmed Inequality

It should be no surprise, fifty to seventy years after the fact, that the introduction of electronic computers in government and industry reflected societal prejudices on women’s employment in the workforce. Books released last year about female computers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA Langley narrated the discrimination and exclusion of those women, whose jobs reflected the messy transition from human to automated calculation in large-scale engineering (both are jointly reviewed, along with Dava Sobel’s book on an earlier generation of female computers, in the New York Review of Books here)

The number of women involved in each of these endeavors were dwarfed, though, by the female workforce of the British civil service that’s discussed in Marie Hicks’s excellent Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing. The Civil Service was large enough to document its decisions in painstaking detail and confident enough not to mince words in its internal papers, which makes Hicks’ book a cringeworthy account of the open, blatant, self-satisfied gender discrimination that accompanied the spread of electro-mechanical and then electronic data processing in the British government.

Hicks describes how, from the late 1940s all the way to the 1970s, the civil service took a pool of machine workers that was mostly female and deliberately and repeatedly hemmed them into job categories where their wages could be kept low and their promotion opportunities (which would mean raises) constrained, at the same time as it relied on their technical skills, practical knowledge, and commitment to keep the government running. Separate pay scales for women, eliminated in 1955, were replaced by a series of “excluded grades,” including machine workers, where pay rates would be lowered to the old women’s rate rather than raised the existing men’s rate. When the growth of automated data processing made the need for more senior professional and managerial positions obvious, the service recruited men for those positions – even when it meant starting them with no computer experience – rather than take the traumatic step of letting female staff from the machine operator grades manage men and be compensated at executive-level pay scales. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the government then found it hard to retain those men, with many taking their new skills into private industry or moving back out of computing to other areas in government.

As Hicks explains it, how the the civil service managed its workforce was not only immoral and inefficient but also terrible for the long-term health of the British computer industry. While segregating away the female computing workforce kept costs low, it also hamstrung modernization. By the time the government realized its need for programmers, most of the people with those skills, being women, could not actually be classed as “programmers,” since that job was conceptualized as higher-status and therefore reserved for men. That led the government to prioritize mainframe designs that could be run with a small expert staff, since retaining skilled male programmers was hard and female machine operators with no promotion opportunities were per se unreliable. Following that decision, made by the leading purchaser of British computers, led the companies that built British computers down a blind-alley in design at just the time that microelectronics were putting more computers on more desks and sparking a revolution in the American computer industry.

The blind alley. The International Computers Limited (ICL) 2966 was one of the last mainframe series to be designed in the UK. This machine is at the National Museum of Computing in Bletchley Park, though it’s so large that only about half is on display. Photograph by Steve Parker, CC-BY-2.0, from flickr as of April 4, 2017.



Architecture against Insurrection

NelsonThe eighteenth century was never really my area, but Louis P. Nelson’s Architecture and Empire in Jamaica (Yale University Press, 2016) is one of the more striking books I’ve read recently. Focusing on domestic and commercial architecture, Nelson outlines how buildings in eighteenth-century Jamaica articulated both slave-holding society’s violent authority and its fears of an slave uprising.

Some of the features that Nelson discusses are blatant. In the mid-century, planters imported fortified designs such as tower houses and the “Z-plan” from Scotland and Ireland. They positioned overseers’ homes on hills that offered easily surveillance of plantation works (though often not of slave housing, interestingly). They even made it illegal for the homes of free blacks to have back doors, in a bid to make it harder to harbor runaway slaves. Other features were more subtle. Nelson argues that the open plan and lodging rooms of the prototypical Jamaican “creole house” helped make the planter’s home a place for broad white solidarity against the enslaved population, making fortification and hospitality two parallel (or overlapping) architectural strategies for security against rebellion.

The scope of fortified construction and other less obvious security measures were what struck me most about Architecture and Empire, but the book covers a lot more too: design and construction techniques to resist hurricanes and earthquakes, to moderate the inconvenience of heat and sun, and to landscape town and countryside in ways that demonstrated prosperity and a connection with the motherland. A hefty and well-illustrated book, Architecture in Empire in Jamaica is more or less intended for the specialist, or at least for the architectural historian. But if you are willing to take the time and look up some terminology then it’s an interesting read.

Did Wartime Recycling Destroy More British Heritage than the Blitz?

That’s the startling conclusion from Peter Thorsheim, a historian at University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His 2013 article “Salvage and Destruction: The Recycling of Books and Manuscripts in Great Britain during the Second World War” (version of record here; hosted on Thorsheim’s own website here) details how Britons recycled 600 million books in 1943 alone, not to mention letters, ephemera, business records, and historic manuscripts – compared to only about 20 million volumes destroyed by the Luftwaffe.

“Salvage and Destruction” and Thorsheim’s recent book Waste into Weapons: Recycling in Britain during the Second World War capture the remarkable scope of Britain’s recycling efforts during the war. Steel, iron, and aluminum were the most obvious materials whose conservation were important to the war effort, but in wartime Britain even paper, rubble, and food scraps were saved. The former had plenty of direct uses in military production: as various propaganda pamphlets explained, one envelope could make the wads for fifty rifle cartridges, three comic books could be converted into the cardboard cups for two 25-pounder artillery shells, and a breakfast cereal box could be recycled into two practice targets.

One of the most interesting aspects of Waste into Weapons is how political the recycling process was. In many cases the need to mobilize support led to counter-productive collection efforts, like piles of tin cans whose tin content wasn’t worth the effort of its extraction. The hordes of children who were mobilized for scrap drivers were considered an obstacle and a waste of effort by the professional salvage industry (like prewar rag-and-bone men), who fought against state and volunteer interference in their work for the entirety of the war. Being seen to recycle everything, for example, was important to convincing American agents for Lend-Lease that Britain was fully committed to the war effort. On the other hand, at least two Quaker conscientious objectors ran afoul of the law for refusing to recycle, since they considered that tantamount to aiding the war effort. Whether or not the wartime recycling effort was well managed – and Thorsheim’s book offers a lot of evidence that it was not – the politics of total war made the idea inescapable.

h/t: New Books in History

London Calling

I picked up London Calling: Britain, the BBC World Service and the Cold War by Alban Webb because it had been shortlisted for the 2015 Longman-History Today book prize (which it won about a month ago). The only book on the shortlist that I had read was Mark Harris’s Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, so I was expecting something similarly pitched towards the general reader (these days, that’s me!). Instead, London Calling is a monograph on the evolution of the BBC’s overseas broadcasting (as Webb points out, the term “BBC World Service” wouldn’t officially exist until 1965) in the first decade of the Cold War. Webb’s focus is on the tension between the BBC’s desire for an independent, albeit government-funded editorial line, and the Foreign Office’s efforts to consolidate all overseas public diplomacy under their control.

The book culminates in a discussion of BBC broadcasting during the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and the Suez Crisis, both of which demonstrated the value of an independent line and the dubious virtues of a close relationship with government policy. The comparison here is to the Voice of Britain, the Foreign Office’s cover psychological warfare radio states in Cyprus, which Webb describes as “a bungled, ineffective and ultimately counterproductive error of judgement.” It also covers how, despite maintaining that independent editorial viewpoint, the BBC overseas services had a close relationship with the government. The BBC took advantage of reporting from British embassies abroad, and it also operated the BBC Monitoring Service. Begun before the Second World War, the Monitoring Service transcribed and distributed foreign radio signals for the BBC and the government – as well as, by extension, the United States.

Neatly covering the interface between government policy and journalistic aims (and, notably, the extent to which the two never diverged that far in the 1950s) London Calling nicely sums up the challenge for the BBC’s broadcasters, as well as for the British government, when it came to the propaganda theatre of the early Cold War.

English Heritage Books Now Online

The Archaeology Data Service has made freely available a batch of 84 titles published by English Heritage.  While some of these look like fairly detailed excavation reports (although IANA: I Am Not An Archaeologist), others like Suffolk’s Defended Shore: Coastal Fortifications from the Air are more general books. Though the digital copies aren’t all of the highest quality, English Heritage’s production values have always been excellent, heavily illustrated and often with substantial numbers of colour photographs, which makes this a resource well worth checking out if you don’t mind reading on screen.

h/t: @JaneEvaBaxter

How Many War Memorials to Animals Are There in the UK?

Twenty-six, according to the UK National Inventory of War Memorials (in the process of re-branding as the Imperial War Museum War Memorials Archive). Started in 1989, the volunteer-run project (there is only one full-time staffer at the IWM) maintains a database of more than 60,000 memorials (the definition is broad, including non-combatant deaths of military personnel in both war and peace and victims of terrorism). When the project began, the best estimate was that there were 25,000 war memorials in Britain. After a decade 33,000 had been recorded and the estimate was 60,000. By 2010 the inventory was up to 60,000 and the estimate was around 100,000. The number continues to grow, not least because of an unquiet world: in 2010, the archive had recorded 504 memorials unveiled since January 1, 2000 (though just over 400 were for one or the other of the World Wars).

You can search the inventory at http://www.ukniwm.org.uk/ and read about its ongoing work on the archive’s blog.