A Genealogy of Silicon

Part II: A Genealogy of Silicon

by Michael Malloy

“No one thought of that earlier, because they weren’t as lazy as I was.”

Grace Hopper

Computers were fun once—fun like rally cars; for the people who got deeply into them, the real joy derived from learning how they worked. Computers of the past were, of course, infinitely more finicky, frustrating, and limited in all respects, disadvantaged by their miniscule memories and slow-as-molasses processors. But in one respect, during at least one era of computer history, they were accessible and responsive to owner maintenance, in a way that’s been rendered impossible as a result of the complexities and scales of modern hardware. One can flip over the venerable Commodore 64, the best-selling home computer model of all time, and, armed with a standard Phillips-head screwdriver, expose the entire circuit board. You can even pop out some of the chips, if you like. You can add new components to your heart’s content—the generous leads in the circuit board provide ample room for the venturesome tooling of a hobbyist’s soldering gun. The IC components are all between one and two inches long—big enough to hold in your hand, each serving a singular, comprehensible purpose. This chip is for the sound. This chip holds the first section of memory. This one does input/output.

The accessibility of these components made the field of “home computing” fertile ground for the growth of a new hobbyist culture. Thousands of mods and upgrades were created for the computers of this era. These physical mods are still being developed, like the Sid2Sid board, which expands the Commodore’s then-revolutionary onboard sound to stereo and adds extra voices. [1] In these past 40 years, however, there have been massive shifts in the makeup and social roles of this “tinkering”—tinkering which laid the groundwork for massive sectors of the modern world economy. This explosion in wealth and the influence of technology has been both catalyzed and tempered by a broad set of social interactions.

Hardware culture, from cars to computers, was and still is a deeply segregated field. The particular complex of prejudices that created this gendered division of labor have been addressed from a number of perspectives. In Gender and Technology, Francesca Bray summarizes a few of these analytical methods:

“Some feminists condemned all technology as intrinsically oppressive of women; others perpetuated stereotypes of women as inherently nurturing. Socialist feminists generally tried to be more contextual in their work, pushing Marxist analysis beyond class to ask why and how modern Western technology had become a male domain.”

Francesca Bray, Gender and Technology [2]

This socialist feminist framework gave rise to the interpretation of specific iterations and forms of domestic labor as the product of historical developments in productive forces. Ruth Schwartz Cowan was the first historian of technology to call attention to this connection, describing the relationship between industrialization and domestic labor and the way in which household labor, rather than a mere reflection of historical forms of labor, is part and parcel of the industrial systems that surround it. What does this have to do with technology? This analysis indicated that, in spite of the “common belief that technology makes our lives easier,” the process of “mechanization served to raise cultural standards of cleanliness rather than freeing women from domestic drudgery,” and that “‘advances’ in technology have changed the details of housework without really lessening the labor.” [3] The progression of technology’s ever-upward climb has created this Sisyphean consumer experience, the endless ratcheting of expectations that, since they are relative to the technology present in society, are impossible to overtake through technological means. It means work, and more and more work as time goes on. For those who cannot afford the technology, it means an inescapable and ever-deepening alienation from the norm.

Considered an extension of secretarial work, the labor of essentially functioning as a system administrator of the first unwieldy computers was perceived as a simple and uncomplicated role, one that women could be expected to do without upsetting the misogynistic practices of gendered labor in postwar America and England.

This overhaul of the home meant that the household consumer, especially middle-class homemakers, experienced a new kind of transition: technology became directly integrated into the household. [4] The merging of the “public and private spheres” was a transition that directly altered the advertising and sales strategies of network television executives and electronic consumer goods manufacturers. Their marketing targeted the newly expanded class of post-war homemakers, [5] playing off anxieties of helplessness and the inability, real or imagined, to repair these devices. Sales tactics explicitly avoided any technical details, focusing on the lifestyle-enhancing luxury and aesthetics of products like televisions. [6]

Simultaneously, a male-driven amateur electronics culture was being established, oftentimes with encouragement from those same manufacturers. Manuals encouraged tinkering with gusto, providing instructions, diagrams, and exhortations to “get your hands dirty” with these new and exciting devices. Lisa Parks describes this new style in tech manuals as intending to:

“[…] acknowledge the embarrassing risk of masculine technical incompetence, authorized the family man to crack open and explore inside the TV set, extending the technical knowledge of television from manufacturers and repair men to male consumers as well. Popular science columns rarely addressed female readers when discussing the in side of the TV set, and consequently positioned it as a hidden domain unsuitable for women’s eyes.”

Lisa Parks, “Cracking Open the Set: Television Repair and Tinkering with Gender 1949-1955” [7]

For these reasons, both the physical hardware and the infusions of capital that undergirded technological development remained a masculine realm, inaccessible to women hobbyists and inscrutable to women consumers. But as a result of this particular structure of gender and technology, a historical trend emerged that to modern observers seems counterposed to our gendered conceptions of technology.

The genealogy of our modern computers and cell phones and Internet-connected toasters traces a long path back to the nightmare of World War II.  Back when computers were the size of living rooms and as fast as a calculator, the maintenance and operation of these behemoths was a full-time job—a job dominated, for a time, by women. Considered an extension of secretarial work, the labor of essentially functioning as a system administrator for these unwieldy computers was perceived as a simple and uncomplicated role, one that women could be expected to do without upsetting the misogynistic practices of gendered labor in postwar America and England. Men would concern themselves with headier notions of hardware and the physical circuitry that constituted the computers, while women—well, I suppose they can make it run.

These early contributions to computing by women are foundational, absolutely essential to the field; they continue to influence the way in which we engage with digital systems. Hedy Lamarr, actress and war refugee, invented a form of signal processing known as frequency-hopping to enable torpedoes to evade jamming signals that would cause them to veer off course. Today, this is the technology that underlies Bluetooth. Grace Hopper invented the compiler as we understand it today. Between 1946 and 1948, a team of eight women at the University of Pennsylvania [8] physically programmed the legendarily cumbersome ENIAC’s 3,000 switches and 18,000 vacuum tubes. They went on to help define standards for computer architecture and programming throughout their careers.

Beneath the monument, there are the memories of those who built it—signatures scrawled into the stones of the monolith, the quiet commemoration of the laborer whose back bent under its weight. Few memorials, however, stand to commemorate these women. This is due in part to a concerted effort to rewrite history. As time went on and programming became the dominant means by which people engaged with computers, the early and essential contributions of women programmers were elided from the founding mythos.

“For every tech billionaire riding high off their scams and regulatory dodges, their cribbed code and lucky breaks, there is a generation that groaned under the financial and social pressures of behemoth corporations, were shaken down for their labor, and were tossed aside the moment a more profitable paradigm emerged.”

The men who had previously looked at programming as a necessary but simple accoutrement to their technical virtuosity exerted their social and political status to colonize the space. Exit “computer girl,” enter “computer geek”—a constructed role for technically minded young men, established vis-à-vis gendered assessments of technical competence and the importance of men’s labor relative to women’s. [9] This transition was facilitated by aggressive advertising, workplace discrimination, and the establishment of a rampantly misogynistic culture surrounding programming and computer engineering. The result was a near-halving of the number of women in the field within a decade. [10] Professional associations actively lobbied employers against hiring women, a brand of chauvinism reflected today in the prevalence of misogynistic dismissals by Silicon Valley employees of women in the programming world. [11]

Often, when discussing the history of technology, the fetishization of gear and gadgets overrides the history of the people who developed them, programmed them, and maintained them. Erasing this history helps us forget how the world’s technologies ended up in their present state. The received wisdom from the mid-1950s to early 1970s was that computer programming was the career for young women looking to get ahead; claims abounded that women were “naturals” at programming. [11] Attitudes have reversed so thoroughly that their essentializing, sexist underpinnings (that low-wage, labor-intensive programming jobs were ideal for women) have been obscured, replaced by an inverted but equally odious culture that assumes men to be natural programmers. Women still played an important role in the field of computing in this era, but from the mid-1980s to the beginning of this decade, they fell from about 40% of computer science majors to 17%. And this drop does not account for the pre-existing gender pay gaps that made the already scarce programming jobs available to women pay even less.

For every tech billionaire flying high off their scams and scrapes, their cribbed code and lucky breaks, there is a generation that groaned under the weight of their behemoth companies, shaken down for their labor and tossed aside the moment a more profitable paradigm emerged. The transition away from women’s domination of programming occurred alongside the massive increase in attention and wealth brought in by tech companies. Programming got competitive, and, under the patriarchal capitalist framework, this meant that the incoming men had an immediate advantage. These stereotypes and assumptions had to be maintained and deliberately cultivated in order to maximize profits and keep labor costs low. They have been preserved in the cultures and policies of the same companies that are doing the hiring and firing. How else to ensure their workforce moves in an unceasing and harried flurry, keeps their noses to the grindstone, and directs their frustration and competition against their coworkers and not their bosses, never taking stock of how dirty they’ve all been dealt?

Michael Malloy is a student teacher, ecological researcher, and socialist from California’s Central Valley. He once turned a Commodore into a synthesizer but ended up frying one of the chips.



  1. https://www.mssiah.com/features.php#sid2sid
  2. http://web.mit.edu/~shaslang/www/WGS/BrayGT.pdf
  3. https://ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1340&context=ijcs
  4. Spigel, Lynn. 1992. Make Room For TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  5. Haralovich, Mary Beth. 1992. From Sitcoms to Suburbs. In Private Screenings, edited by Lynn Spigel and Denise Mann. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  6. Gray, Anne. 1992. Video Playtime: The Gendering of a Leisure Technology. London: Routledge
  7. Parks, L. (2000). Cracking Open the Set: Television Repair and Tinkering with Gender 1949-1955. Television & New Media, 1(3), 257–278. https://doi.org/10.1177/152747640000100302
  8. Their names were: Kathleen McNulty, Mauchly Antonelli, Jean Jennings Bartik, Frances Snyder Holberton, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Frances Bilas Spence, and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum.
  9. https://timeline.com/women-pioneered-computer-programming-then-men-took-their-industry-over-c2959b822523
  10. https://gender.stanford.edu/news-publications/gender-news/researcher-reveals-how-computer-geeks-replaced-computer-girls
  11. https://hackernoon.com/a-brief-history-of-women-in-computing-e7253ac24306
  12. Historian Nathan Ensmenger describes this historical moment and the transition out of it in The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise, a fantastic resource for perspectives on this period driven by the actual development of these technologies.

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