First-Hand:Women in Programming and Computer Art at Bell Labs
Submitted by A. Michael Noll, October 2, 2022
Copyright © 2022 A. Michael Noll
Based mostly on personal knowledge, I document my recollections of some of the women who contributed much to computer graphics, programming, computing, and speech research at Bell Telephone Laboratories, Incorporated (Bell Labs), where I was employed in the 1960s and part of the 1970s. I also delve a little into the early history of computer art, but a previous paper of mine documents in more detail the early work in computer art at Bell Labs.
A 2013 paper by Grant Taylor discusses women in computer programming and early computer art; it stimulated my memories of women in programming, research, and computer graphics at Bell Labs. My recollections fall into two areas: the roles women had at Bell Labs and the potential sexism within the culture at Bell Labs made evident by the image of “The Nude.” I start with some broad questions about women programmers and stereotypical differences.
Were women inherently better at words, language, concepts, details, and computer programming then men? Were women better at mathematics, equations, and interrelationships? Were men better at building, at construction, and at design of physical things? Is that why such engineering areas as electrical, mechanical, and civil Were so male dominated? Is this all just stereotyping?
What of Bell Labs in the 1960s? Who did what? And how does this relate to computer art? Computer art combines the making – the design and construction of art – with the algorithmic aspect of programming a digital computer. The masculine design and construction is combined with the feminine programming. But is this too stereotyping?
In the 1960s, programming was viewed as a technician support function to be performed by women. Perhaps this was a spillover from years earlier when the code breakers working at Bletchley Park during Word War II were mostly women. Keypunch operators were mostly all women at Bell Labs. My cousin recalls that over half the computer programmers in the 1970s at the insurance company Chubb were women; but the computer operators were almost all men.
In the 1960s, digital computers frightened many people. Computers were associated with automation and loss of jobs, and with the loss of privacy. Artificial intelligence and machine learning were popular then – and created more fears. Computer engineers and system developers were mostly men. Hardware was masculine – software was feminine.
Programmers at Bell Labs
During the 1960s at Bell Labs, computer programmers were mostly women. Bell Labs recruited female mathematics students for summer internships as programmers, hoping they would later return fulltime after graduation.
What follows documents many of the women programmers at Bell Labs that I encountered, and also in some cases worked with as colleagues. Programmers wrote the computer programs, sometimes using FORTRAN, sometimes in machine code, and sometimes in other programming languages.
Barbara J. McDermott worked with mathematical psychologist J. Douglas Carroll on multidimensional scaling. She was responsible for much of the data analysis of my experiment on the effects of artistic training on pattern preferences. I was amazed that she took the time and effort to analyze my data – but that kind of collegial assistance was the norm back then at Bell Labs.
Down the hallway from my office at Bell Labs in the early 1960s, was an office inhabited by Carol Maclennan (then Bird) and Carol Lochbaum. They were programmers doing research, but also helping folks like me debug our ill programs, and also teaching us new programming tricks. Lochbaum programmed the famous computer-synthesized “Daisy Bell,” working with John L. Kelly, Jr. and Max Mathews. Carol Maclennan would later do research at Bell Labs with physicist Louis Lanzerotti.
Jih-Jie Chang and Joan E. Miller independently worked with Bela Julesz on his research. Marian Macchi worked in speech synthesis. Miller and Macchi would earn doctorates while employed at Bell Labs. Maja-Lisa Thomson was a programmer in laser physics research.
Women were much involved in computer graphics and art at Bell Labs. Ruth A. Weiss developed a programming package BE VISION in 1964, which she used to create a graphic version of Mickey Mouse, until Disney copyright became a concern. She also worked on the development of MULTICS and the L2 programming language.
Carol Bosche programmed random-dot stereogram for Bela Julesz. Barbara Caspers did the system and other programming for the interactive, laboratory computer system (DDP-224) of Peter B. Denes. Visiting musician-artist Laurie Spiegel used that laboratory system in the early 1970s to program computer music, graphics, and art.
Suzanne L. Hanauer did the programming for physicist Manfred R. Schroeder’s number-theory computer art around 1968. Lorinda Cherry worked with Kenneth Knowlton in 1969 on a FORTRAN IV version of his BEFLIX language for computer animation. Anne Freeny and John Gabbe made a computer-animated movie of rainfall around 1968.
At Bell Labs in the 1960s, those working on creating operating systems (such as Unix) and software packages were mostly men. They did not consider themselves “programmers,” who were viewed as technicians supporting researchers and engineers. The developers of Unix considered themselves system developers. Today, programmers are also known as coders, and seem to be mostly men.
Vera Molnar was an artist who, around 1968, learned how to program to create computer art. She clearly was an artist-programmer and an early pioneer of algorithmic computer art. Artist Collette Bangert collaborated with her husband “Jeff” Bangert who did the computer programming for her, around 1967. Anne Spalter and Darcy Gerbarg are today active computer artists.
Exhibits of digital computer art were organized and curated by women. The significant exhibit “Cybernetic Serendipity” in London in 1968 was envisioned, organized, and curated by Jasia Reichardt. Computer art historian and curator Cynthia Goodman organized an exhibit of computer art in the 1980s.
Collaboration between engineers and artists was advocated in the 1960s, and promoted by Billy Kluver’s Experiments and Art and Technology (E.A.T.). It might all look ideal in concept, but collaboration can result in disagreements over credit – who did what. A technologist collaborator who did much of the design and programming might be dismissed if history is rewritten.
If an artist appropriates computer graphic images programmed by a programmer, does that make the artist a “computer artist”? If an artist collaborates with a programmer, does that make the artist a “computer artist”? Today, we have artist-programmer – the two go together. Knowlton and I independently envisioned the programmer-artist – and wrote about it. Artist Stan VanDerBeek collaborated at Bell Labs with Ken Knowlton, starting around 1965. Ultimately, around 1968, I believe VanDerBeek became an artist-programmer.
There were other visitors at Bell Labs did early computer art. Aaron Marcus was an intern at Bell Labs, who, around 1967, did interactive programs for graphic-design and also programmed his own computer art. Video artist Nam June Paik visited Bell Labs from 1966 to 1968 and programmed his own computer art as geometric patterns.
Back then in the 1960s, as a research engineer, I would not have wanted to do programming in collaboration with an artist. Doing so would have made me a technician doing support work. However, I fully acknowledge that some programming can be very innovative and creative, even producing artist results.
Sexism at Bell Labs
It would be natural to wonder how the men who were mostly in engineering and research at Bell Labs viewed women. Was there sexism in the culture of Bell Labs back then? Women programmers were mostly Senior Technical Aids (STA), and were rarely promoted to the level of Associate Member of the Technical Staff (AMTS). They were not a Member of the Technical Staff (MTS). They were mostly second-class employees.
A glimpse of how women were categorized was the fashion show that was held at the Arnold Auditorium. About a dozen secretaries would show the current fashions for women. Because of complaints from some secretaries about this demeaning, sexist event, the shows were ultimately halted.
Another glimpse was the male fascination at Bell Labs with female nudity demonstrated by the famous work “The Nude.” “The Nude” credited to Leon Harmon and Kenneth Knowlton of Bell Labs was done in 1967, but still generates much attention today. According to Billy Kluver, he gave “10 bucks” to dancer Debbie (Deborah) Hay to pose nude for a photo. Kluver stated that Max Mathews took the picture, but Max claimed the Leon Harmon took it. Harmon and Knowlton digitized the photo and then reproduced it using little pixel images of math and electrical symbols for the gray scale.
It was not a study in perception, as claimed by Harmon. Nor was it an artistic pose. It actually looked rough and granular. Knowlton referred to it quite correctly as a “sophomoric prank,” to which I would add, by a bunch of guys at Bell Labs having some fun. Cellist and avant-garde advocate Charlotte Moorman was noted for playing the cello topless – which attracted much attention and interest from the guys at Bell Labs who flocked to her performances.
The fascination with nude women by some guys at Bell Labs perhaps was an indication of undercurrents of sexism, particularly with a number of women programmers in an otherwise mostly male environment. Were women being exploited?
With all the women programmers at Bell Labs, there were many “available” young women. One would expect the usual hanky-panky to occur, and perhaps this was expected back then. Relationships do occur quite frequently at the workplace – and Bell Labs was a huge workplace and no exception.
Some men behaved in unacceptable ways towards some women, as has been happening for years, and is not acceptable. Some of the episodes involved married men, cheating on their wives. Some women might have been aggressive and knew how to use their attributes to charm men to get attention and what they wanted. However, the personnel department at Bell Labs even back then would not have condoned or accepted that kind of behavior, particularly if unwanted.
But many women were attracted to programming and digital computers, leading for some to productive careers in science and engineering.
Notes and References
- My memories and focus are on the early and mid 1960s, and on those who actually were programmers at Bell Labs at the Murray Hill, New Jersey facility, where I was employed as a Member of Technical Staff (MTS).
- “Early Digital Computer Art at Bell Telephone Laboratories, Incorporated,” LEONARDO, Vol. 49, No. 1 (February 2016), pp. 55-65.
- Grant David Taylor, ’Up for grabs:” Agency, Praxis, and the Politics of Early Digital Art,” Lateral 2 (Journal of the Cultural Studies Association), 2013.
- Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_Bletchley_Park
- A. Michael Noll, “The Effects of Artistic Training…” The Psychological Record, Vol. 22, 1972, pp. 449-462.
- Cary O’Dell, “Daisy Bell,” Library of Congress, National Registry: 2009.
- Bell Labs Memoirs: Voices of Innovation, edited by A. Michael Noll & Michael Geselowitz, IEEE, 2011.
- Bela Julesz & Jih-Jie Chang, “Symmetry Perception and Spatial-Frequency Channels,” Perception, Vol. 8, No. 6 , December 1, 1979, pp. 711-718.
- Bela Julesz & Joan E. Miller, “Independent spatial-frequency-tuned channels in binocular fusion and rivalry,” Perception, Vol. 4, 1975, pp. 125–143.
- Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruth_A._Weiss
- Compart: http://dada.compart-bremen.de/item/agent/670
- Compart: http://dada.compart-bremen.de/item/artwork/1139
- Jasia Reichardt (editor), Cybernetic Serendipity: the computer and the arts, Studio International Special Issue, July 1968.
- Cynthia Goodman, Digital Visions: Computers and Art, Harry N. Abrams, 1987.
- A. Michael Noll, “Art Ex Machina,” IEEE Student Journal, Vol. 8, No. 4, (September 1970), pp. 10-14.
- A. Michael Noll, "The VanDerBeek-Knowlton Movies," LEONARDO, Vol. 52, No. 3 (2019), pp. 314-319.
- Computer History Museum oral history of Aaron Marcus 2019: https://www.computerhistory.org/collections/catalog/102795828
- Asia Society: https://asiasociety.org/blog/asia/flashback-story-behind-nam-june-paiks-digital-experiment-bell-labs
- Bell Labs & the Origins of the MultiMedia Artist, https://ethw.org/Archives:Bell_Labs_&_The_Origins_of_the_Multimedia_Artist
- Kenneth C. Knowlton, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Scientist,” YLEM Journal, Jan/Feb 2005, Vol. 25 No. 2.