Monday, March 23, 2009

A family history of computing

Ed. note: This post is part of the Ada Lovelace Day blog posting event on March 24, 2009.

My mother's mother was not an ordinary girl of the 1930's. First off, she never should have lived. She was born extremely premature to an unwed mother in a time when premature babies didn't have any chance, and an unwed mother had no support. Of course, her mother gave her away for adoption. What else could she do? And so, when my childless great-grandfather and great-grandmother were walking through the orphanage looking for a baby boy to bring home, to raise up so that he could help on the farm and support them in their old age, my grandmother was a very unlikely candidate indeed.

But, the family legend goes, as they walked through the line of bassinets, my grandfather stood stock still at the foot of one bed. He was captivated by the tiny, wrinkled thing inside the bassinet. He had fallen in love.

"Oh, no," The nurse warned, "You mustn't. She won't... you know. She was born too soon. And you wanted a boy. We have a lovely baby boy just over here..."

But my great-grandfather would not be moved. He had found his child. He was going to bring this one home, and no other.

There were no incubators back then. My grandmother was kept in a boot-box under the wood stove in my great-grandparents' farm house in San Leandro, California. They had to buy a goat so that the baby could have goat's milk, since her stomach was too sensitive to handle cow's milk. And that wrinkled little preemie that shouldn't have lived thrived. And she was loved.

And she was spoiled.

She had violin lessons and ballet lessons. Her mother, a seamstress by trade from a long line of seamstresses, made her the most beautiful dresses, and taught her the secrets of a master seamstress. And she excelled at all of it. In fact, she would one day play violin for the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and dance in the San Francisco Ballet. But that was not her real love, her true love.

It turns out, she had another talent. One far more unexpected of a little girl. She was a whiz with numbers. Perhaps it came from the fact that her father wanted a boy to play with and teach, and chose to give his treasured little girl all the same things he would have done for and with a boy. Perhaps it was just innate.

She did her Bachelors degree in Mathematics. Then she got married, had children, got divorced, and went back to graduate school. She moved herself and her children to Nevada, studied, and worked as a dealer in a Reno casino while raising her (then) three kids on her own. She got a Masters degree, but never got her PhD.

Again, family legend fills in the story here with unverifiable claims, this time of struggles instead of joy. It's said that she wrote a dissertation for her doctorate, but her male advisor took the work and published it as his own before she could turn it in for her degree. Perhaps it's exactly true. Perhaps there is more to the story. Who knows? But it certainly isn't unexceptional. There are many stories of women getting cheated out of the work that they did when a male in their workplace or school took credit for it.

My grandma returned to the San Francisco Bay Area with her children and her Masters degree and went to work at Laurence Livermore Laboratory. Even in the world of technology, she did a job that was considered women's work. She was one of the people who checked the math of the computers. You might call that a QA engineer today, only she wasn't checking on how well a GUI worked, she was checking to make sure that the fundamental math behind the program was designed correctly and that the answers coming out of the computer were the ones expected. She'd have to do the math by hand, with pencil and slide-rule, for a certain percentage of the responses, to make sure that all of the output was trustworthy.

My grandmother wasn't a terribly nice person, and she wasn't a very good mother, unfortunately. She didn't die happy or in the company of her children. She was, actually, pretty bitter and mean and even selfish. She left a legacy of mental health problems. Two of her three daughters committed suicide. Her son is an alcoholic. Her eldest child, who seems to have faired the best, and yet still has many problems of her own, is my mother.

My grandmother is a mystery to me. How could someone so brilliant be so unkind to her own children and sow so much discord in her own family? I don't know. But I do know that her grandchildren are all very bright, despite all of our own problems. One of her granddaughters grew up to be a lawyer. One grandson and one granddaughter grew up to be programmers. I lost touch with three of her grandsons years ago, but when they were kids they were all honors students, too. Perhaps one of them is a mathematician like her.

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