When Computers Were Women

When Computers Were Women, 2021
four hand-woven Jacquard wall hangings made of recycled cotton, organic cotton and lambswool, 70cm x 300cm each

When Computers Were Women is a project connected to my practice-based PhD research on feminist critiques of physics, and stems from an invited residency at CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) in 2018.

Following that visit, I pitched an artwork—a film about the non-scientific labour (cooking/cleaning/housekeeping/administration/grounds maintenance) mostly performed by women which effectively enables physicists to carry out their own work in a relatively frictionless environment. Permission wasn’t granted and that was basically the end of that.

However during that visit, I spotted a handful of computer programming punchcards in a cabinet in the data centre and was struck by their resemblance to an older form of data-processing technology: the punch cards used to control the rods and hooks that raise the warp threads of looms fitted with Jacquard devices.

There are any number of tedious tech articles on the relationship between Jacquard’s punch card-based mechanism and Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine that proclaim Jacquard’s genius and embrace him as inventor of the first proto-computer. That said, when I happened upon the cards at CERN, the connections between histories of computational and weaving technology were too generative to ignore. Not only were there parallels between sexism in physics and technology, namely, the erasure of women and people of colour from conventional histories that tend to glorify white male figures. But there were also correspondences between the use of gendered, sometimes ‘low skill’ labour—women in weaving as pattern readers; women in physics as “computers” or “scanner girls”—and the later evolution of such gendered work into labour-saving computerised algorithms.

Weaving has long been associated with women’s work. Freud wrote that women’s only contribution to invention in the history of civilisation—‘that of plaiting and weaving’—was simply an unconscious imitation of Nature’s model of public hair! Jaquard’s mechanism and other ‘labour-saving’ technologies pushed not only women out of weaving, but human labourers altogether. A single weaver and a computer-controlled loom can create in days what previously took many skilled workers months to achieve. 

Similarly, the early history of computing (& its use in science) is defined by the large numbers of women who worked as technicians and programmers on everything from wartime ballistics calculations to weather forecasts. As computing developed and programming became an increasingly specialised job, the women who had essentially invented the field were pushed out, their participation erased.

I wondered whether there were more of the punch cards at CERN and returned for a second visit in February 2020. Excellent sleuthing by the CERN data centre’s communications director and a physicists from the ATLAS experiment had turned up an entire programme perfectly preserved in a basement storage room. During that trip, I individually photographed the programme’s 2,131 punch cards. Thanks to information provided by curious engineers who occasionally stopped by to see what I was doing, I also managed to identity the original programmer (who had recently retired) and obtain further information. The programme—a reconstruction programme for proton-proton elastic scattering for an experiment on the old Intersecting Storage Rings that predated the LHC—had been written by  P.Palazzi.In addition to questions of gendered labour, labour-saving technologies and computational history, the project is also interested in the idea of translation as method. You might think it’s an easy thing to translate computer punch cards into Jacquard punch cards, but it isn’t.

Luckily, I was saved by the Python know-how of Henry Cooke (aka @prehensile), who helped me enormously by reconfiguring an existing script that scanned the punch cards I’d photographed, extracted their binary data and reconstructed everything in the form I needed to create the weaving grid.

Here’s an image of the final grid created by reading the data of the CERN punch cards and translating it into a form that can be read by a Jacquard loom mechanism—basically the set of instructions that tells the loom what to do.

Working with the wonderful all-women weaving team of the Bristol Weaving Mill, Libby Kates in particular, we wove four pieces in total:

  • A literal translation using the CERN punchcards as Jacquard punchcards
  • A visual interpretation weaving the Jacquard grid from piece 1 as if a design rather than a set of instructions
  • A 400% zoom of piece 2
  • A mash-up piece of every single weave test made for the previous 3 pieces woven as a single piece to visualise the making process

Enormous thanks and credit for their invaluable help in making this work possible: Claire Adam B and Melissa Gaillard at CERN; Henry Cooke, programmer extraordinaire; Libby Kates and the incredible all-women team of weaving magicians at @bristol_weaving; Konrad @meowstudios; and Andrea Roe at the ECA.

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