Home Trail Blazers Winter 2018 From Key Punching to Computer Science

From Key Punching to Computer Science

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From Key Punching to Computer Science
Remington Rand computer punch card sorting machine. In artifact collection storage at Ingenium. Photo credit: Ingenium.

The critically-acclaimed 2016 movie Hidden Figures tells the story of the crucial yet unrecognized contributions made by women to NASA’s early Project Mercury and Gemini Space flights.

While researching the development of university computer science programs in Canada for her thesis, University of Ottawa doctoral candidate Jennifer Thivierge found another example of vital, but unappreciated work done by women. But this one is closer to home.

Jennifer discovered the untold story of women in the early 1960s in Canada who were relegated to the job of punching holes in early computer data cards. Although the work of these women known as “keypunch girls” was vital to computer operations at the time, they had no hope of advancement at work.

Serious about removing gender barriers in the sciences, Ingenium was keen to help Jennifer in her research about discrimination against women in the early days of computing in Canada.

Ingenium – Canada’s of Science and Innovation was thrilled to offer Jennifer one of two of the first Ingenium-University of Ottawa Fellowship in Gender, Science and Technology.

Ingenium runs three museums in Ottawa: the Canada Agriculture and Food, the Aviation and Space Museum, and the Canada Science and Technology Museum.

The Canada Science and Technology Museum provided space, resources, and access to its collection, including artifacts such as keypunch machines and card sorters from the 1950s to the 1980s.

“Keypunch girls” were vital to the success of computer operations in the 1960s, yet they themselves had no hope for advancement at their work.

Remington Rand card punch machine, ca 1960. Card
punch machine for punching holes in computer punch
cards. In ar t i fact col lect ion storage at Ingenium.
Photo credit: Jennifer Thivierge.

In addition to the “keypunch girls” story, Jennifer discovered that the percentage of women enrolled in university computer science programs across Canada has risen from 18.2% in 1972 to only 25% in 2011. She points out, however, that by 2016 the percentage of women enrolled in computer science programs at the University of Ottawa had risen to 33%, and that the numbers of female and male computer science professors had reached parity.

Computer punch cards have holes punched in specific positions
and patterns which represent data in a machine-readable form that
can be processed and stored by a computer. In artifact collection
storage at Ingenium. Photo credit: Jennifer Thivierge.

Ingenium is committed to encouraging and empowering women and girls in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – the STEM fields. This will be achieved through a multi-pronged approach that includes the above-mentioned Ingenium-University of Ottawa Fellowship in Gender, Science and Technology, a travelling display that will relay in-depth stories about successful women in STEM, and specialized programming and events.

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