Marginalized Histories of Great Innovators

Reading about a few of the great technological engineers in history made me wonder why their reputations are less well-known. The contributions of the female computers of WWII, Ada Lovelace, and Alan Turing seem to be met with resistance and controversy. The marginalization of women and even certain men leads to the popular theory that straight, white men invented the Internet.

The images and footage of the female computers in the film Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of World War II are far less iconic than the images and footage of the male soldiers in uniform. If you search for images of women during World War II, the top results include the Times Square Kiss, actresses, pin ups, and Rosie the Riveter. The mathematical and technical skills of the female computers were put to use in ballistics research, weapons testing, and eventually chemical weaponry. Perhaps the classified nature of their research and the implied scope of their successful efforts to the war, namely the accuracy and effectiveness of the weapons used defeat the enemy, are reasons that their contributions have been marginalized. However, the male soldiers who used those weapons in battle are often praised for their heroism.

Charles Babbage is a name that is far more recognizable than his young collaborator Ada Lovelace. Even to this day Lovelace’s contributions to Babbage’s work have been debated and considered by some to have been greatly exaggerated.

Alan Turing’s imprisonment, due to living openly as a homosexual, and suicide draws attention away from his biggest achievements such as the universal computing machine, his code breaking skills, and his interest in testing artificial intelligence.

After reading several articles, I noticed a common view that women, homosexual men, and even minorities in STEM and IT innovations have been regarded as secondary players to the more important roles held by the white male innovators. One article goes so far as to say that the contributions of women to technological advances have been elevated beyond fact and thereby have hurt women’s cause for recognition in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Are people not allowed to celebrate remarkable innovations by women, homosexual men, and minorities simply because the praise is too high for such “small” and “hidden” contributions? I believe that it’s important to honor all of the significant innovators who have paved the way for the production of today’s technologies. While white men are credited with inventing the Internet, that does not mean that women, homosexuals, and minorities lacked the skills or capability to do so. If anything, this marginalization means that the latter set had to work harder to be heard and acknowledged for their efforts.

If we can credit [Al] Gore as an Internet innovator despite having nothing at all to do with developing its infrastructure three decades prior, then surely we can credit women whose development of early coding language, network protocol and ARPANET influenced networked infrastructure pre-, during and post-DARPA. Certainly we can credit Ada Lovelace, a mathematician of the 19th century who is considered the world’s first computer programmer. And, of course, there’s an entire history of mathematics we can link to the African Diaspora! (Tara L. Conley, “The Women and People of Color Who Invented the Internet”)

It’s inaccurate and insulting to suggest that only white men are responsible for the creation of the Internet as well as every important innovation that led to history’s greatest technological advances. Several crucial STEM projects are works of collaboration and cooperation between men and women of different skill sets and backgrounds. There’s no reason why some of technology’s pioneers should be overlooked because of their gender, race, or sexual orientation.

4 responses to “Marginalized Histories of Great Innovators

  1. simmerswept October 26, 2012 at 10:39 pm

    I’ve already written a response but after reading your post I’m doing another because you touched on the second profound injustice of marginalized histories. The first is, of course, that the accomplishments of certain groups in the engineering, mathematics, and technology fields have gone and continue to go unrecognized. The second grave injustice is that, once remembered, they continue to be under-recognized. For if we study the accomplishments of people of color, women, and LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) together, we risk unintentionally conveying the message that we are only studying their contributions because of their place outside the majority.

    CNN contributor LZ Granderson made a similar argument regarding Affirmative Action. You can read the piece, titled “What’s Wrong With Affirmative Action and Why We Still Need It” in its entirety here if you’re interested. He asserts that, while Affirmative Action has carried societal benefits, one of the unintended consequences is that anytime one of the aforementioned individuals gets hired, they are presumed to have been on the basis of their skin color, gender, or sexual identity. Their individual contributions go unrecognized and undervalued because their peers often assume “they’re only here because they’re… (fill in the blank).”

    I don’t have a solution but I hope we’re at an academic flux where, having identified this problem, we can start to incorporate marginalized histories as part of the overall fabric of history, instead of subconsciously grouping them together so that we only talk about them when discussing those who were left out and left behind. At least, I hope that’s where we’re headed…

  2. Kim A. Knight October 27, 2012 at 12:37 pm

    Oddly, I think we can also tie this to the whole “we built this / you didn’t build that” theme of the 2012 presidential campaign. There is a fundamental difference of strategy in recognizing contributions, one which valorizes a limited scope of dominant figures and another which acknowledges the contributions of many. Is this an important distinction to make when recovering histories and role models?

  3. courtneyhernandez November 3, 2012 at 12:25 am

    The problem here, to me, seems twofold. Marginalized histories are indicative of greater systemic privileges and the myth of the meritocracy. You mention that in your observations, when women, racial or LGBT minorities are mentioned in relation to scientific, mathematical, or technological discoveries they often play second fiddle. The heros of those stories are the straight white males, the majority group. I think this narrative is a purposefully one that perpetuates a particular structure of privilege. Those with privilege, who have access to education, technology, and social connections in the STEM/IT world, the straight white males, start their careers ahead of everyone else. And those privileges shouldn’t be held against them, until those with privilege start to believe everyone has access to the same privileges they do. That idea gives rise to the meritocracy. Minorities occupying less jobs or positions in these fields becomes justified. Beliefs such as, “Women just are good with computers,” or “Men are naturally more logical than women,” justify the lack of diversity in technology or science. So I guess then the question becomes, what can we do to keep minorities, women, and LGBT from being marginalized in the future? And this is where the second part of the problem emerges for me. In order to grant those “others” the privileges of the “norm,” the historic and political order must be disrupted. Affirmative action is one way in which “others” are intentionally offered access to such privileges of education, jobs, or social connections. But, as you alluded to, steps like that come to with their problems. We must be continually mindful that the marginalized histories and cultural erasures are the consequences of an imbalanced privilege structure, and not autonomous events.

  4. AJ November 16, 2012 at 8:03 am

    You may or may not be right that women and gays are underrepresented in our scientific and technical histories but Alan Turing and Ada Lovelace are very poor examples that undermine your case.

    Alan Turing has a huge reputation amongst computer scientists and engineers. The idea that he is marginilised is silly. He wa spersecuted but this has not prevented recognition of his contributions to computer science and cryptography. The fact that the turing test is so named is just one token of this.

    Ada Lovelace is rightly considered a lesser figure than Babbage, but how could this not be so, he invented the idea and she elaborated and extended what coudl be done with it. She is still very well known and is commemorated in a well known computer language – Ada. The nature of modern scholarship is to challenge established ‘truths’ there is no evidence that she has suffered from this any more than anyone else. A well known account of modern of physcis suggested Lorentz not Einstein was responsible for the theory of relativity (bizarrely IMO). Does this suggets there is an anti white male bias?

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