The History of Computers: Who Have We Left Out and Who Are We Continuing to Leave Out?

Chloe Nelson
5 min readFeb 7, 2021
Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

Computer-based and digital technologies may seem like it had been conceived and developed throughout a couple of decades, however, the actual time this concept has been around for is more akin to a couple of centuries. Starting with the baseline of logarithms, John Napier in 1614, used this idea to create a better foundation for analytics that would inspire many inventions and mathematical tools. A few hundred years later, Charles Babbage created a “Difference Engine” that, when cranked by hand, would calculate and compute mathematical equations and tables, which would be considered one of the first instances of a programmable machine that would make way for computers. This 1822 creation inspired Ada Lovelace, a mathematician, to join forces with Baggage on this machine which would lead to her writing the first computer program for this machine. Babbage’s machine and Lovelace’s programming would create principles that would inspire the creation of the first electronic and programmable computer in 1943 by Tommy Flowers called “The Colossus”. This essentially instigated a rapid development of computer technologies, and while before we would see improvements to computer technology and analytical thoughts within a few centuries, now we are seeing major developments just between a few decades and even as little as a few years. As we see this rapid development of technology, we have forgotten many of the people who have created the foundations for these technologies to work. Even more often than not, those who are women and people of color have been chosen to be forgotten over their white, male counterparts. We have also forgotten the adversity many of these people had faced while during their lives.

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One historical example of an inventor facing adversity was Ada Lovelace. Even though she was an important asset to Babbage and his “Difference Engine”, she was often treated with disrespect by her male counterparts. Even though the male mathematicians and inventors she worked with saw a great intelligence within Ada, they often would tell her that since she was a woman, she would very likely become too exhausted to keep up with her career. Even Babbage, who had created a mentorship and a partnership over the Difference Machine with her, would not give her any leadership over the machine itself, even though she understood the machine just as much as Babbage did. One person who has been left out of the history of technology is Granville T. Woods. He was a black inventor who lived from 1856 to 1910. He invented an induction telegraph that allowed for communication over a telegraph line to be done with voice, rather than Morse code. While he was creating many important inventions during this time, he was overlooked while Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell were given the fame instead. Woods was an important and key part of creating the telephone, but the credit of creating the telephone is always solely given to Alexander Graham Bell. Both of these examples have shown how women and people of color were treated when they were able to successfully complete many of their own inventions and show their intellectual prowess. While we would like to believe that these issues have stayed in the past, these are still problems that are running rampant today.

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Racism and Sexism is still very much a prominent issue within the technology field. In June of 2020, the LA Times interviewed tech professionals that had experienced these within their offices. These stories included one Black woman describing her experience of working at Pinterest where she was told she needed to provide the “pros for promoting slave plantations” when her managers reviewed with her the way she should have handled the topic of former plantations being spread as a wedding venue on the site. One particular story that was also concerning from the article came from a Black man that had worked for Google in its New York offices of and was racially profiled. Before June 17th of 2020, Google held a policy that encouraged its employees to self-police their offices, and when necessary to question anyone they deemed suspicious for their employee badge. Leslie Miley explained how as he was entering into his office, he had allowed one of his white co-workers to swipe his employee card to open up the security door. The man then tried to slam the door to stop Leslie from entering, and then asked for his employee badge. The badge had been clearly visible on Leslie’s hip throughout the whole exchange, but the man had still questioned his presence at the office. Leslie ignored the man and walked past him through the door, and as he continued to walk, he was shoved by the man and further questioned. While this policy of self-policing the offices has been terminated, the community and the racial biases within it have not. While it was a good start, it is still not enough. Throughout the technology industry, there needs to be an end to keeping people of color from feeling excluded from the companies they work for. We need to stop the process of keeping people of color out of the history of technology, we need to do this by making sure that voices of color are heard and respected.

Resources:

Bhuiyan, J., Dean, S., & Hussain, S. (2020, June 24). Black and brown tech workers share their experiences of racism on the job. Retrieved February 07, 2021, from https://www.latimes.com/business/technology/story/2020-06-24/diversity-in-tech-tech-workers-tell-their-story

Childnet. (2020, October 21). Black inventors and pioneers who have influenced the way we use the internet and technology today. Retrieved February 07, 2021, from https://www.childnet.com/blog/black-inventors-and-pioneers-who-have-influenced-the-way-we-use-the-internet-and-technology-today

McFadden, C. (2020, July 06). A brief history of the WEB: From 17th century computers to today’s DIGITAL EMPIRES. Retrieved February 07, 2021, from https://interestingengineering.com/a-brief-history-of-computing-and-the-web-from-17th-century-computers-to-todays-digital-empires

Sharman, N. (Director). (2017). Calculating Ada — The Countess of Computing [Video file]. Retrieved February 7, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QgUVrzkQgds&feature=youtu.be

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