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Book Summary: Broad Band by Claire L. Evans – The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet

Broad Band (2018) tells the story of the women who played significant roles in the evolution of computers and the internet. It examines how these women became trailblazers in fields of work that were initially considered boring – but later proved to be of great importance.

Book Summary: Broad Band by Claire L. Evans - The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet

Content Summary

Who is it for?
What’s in it for me? Learn how female mental labor built the internet.
Ada Lovelace was the world’s first computer programmer.
Grace Hopper was a computer-science trailblazer.
The women of the ENIAC Six taught themselves to program the first electronic computer.
Women played a significant role in building communication networks for social good.
Elizabeth “Jake” Feinler was responsible for an important precursor to the internet.
One of the earliest social media networks, Echo, was created by a woman and featured the first influencer.
Dame Wendy Hall innovated in the field of hypertext, which produced the World Wide Web.
Jaime Levy is a digital-publishing pioneer.
About the author

Who is it for?

  • Young women interested in pursuing a career in computer science
  • Computer scientists and engineers
  • People interested in how women have shaped our world

What’s in it for me? Learn how female mental labor built the internet.

Women have been at the vanguard of every new innovation in computer science – from online publishing to information science to programming to virtual communities. Yet sexist stereotypes still persist; many people think computer science is the domain of men.

Why? Well, women’s achievements have, by and large, been erased from the history of computing technology. They’ve also just been outright ignored.

That’s where these summaries come in. They reinscribe this erased history and shine light on these women’s overlooked lives. As you’ll find out, some women became pioneers in the industry by taking up work that was considered too mundane to be handled by men; others taught themselves how to operate computers that had no user manuals. Most of them had to forge professional paths in computer science that didn’t yet exist – paths we now walk, thanks to them.

In these summaries, you’ll discover

  • what Lord Byron has to do with computer programming;
  • what a “kilogirl” is; and
  • how a college dropout secured a $150,000 computer for a community project.

Ada Lovelace was the world’s first computer programmer.

When the famous English poet Lord Byron died almost 200 years ago, he didn’t just bequeath to the world his beautiful verses – he also left behind a daughter, Ada Lovelace.

Ada was the only child of Byron’s short-lived marriage to a mathematics-loving aristocrat, Anna Isabella Milbanke. Milbanke wanted to make sure her daughter didn’t develop any of her father’s wildness, so she arranged a comprehensive math education for Ada from the time she was four years old. Today we remember Ada not for her famous parentage, but as a trailblazer in a field that touches nearly every aspect of our modern lives: computer programming.

The key message here is: Ada Lovelace was the world’s first computer programmer.

From a very young age, Ada excelled in her studies. She soon outgrew her tutors but continued to educate herself through books and correspondence, even developing friendships with leading scientists of the day. When she was 17, Lovelace met Charles Babbage, the creator of the difference engine – an early calculator for complicated mathematical problems. Ada was fascinated by the machine and eager to learn from Babbage.

As was the norm for aristocrats of her day, Ada married young. Her husband, William King, would go on to become the first Earl of Lovelace. Marriage, children, and the social responsibilities of a countess were time-consuming. Nevertheless, Lovelace’s interest in Babbage’s work persisted.

Babbage soon devised another machine, the analytical engine, which performed general-purpose computation. When Lovelace came across a paper about the analytical engine in a Swiss journal, she decided to translate it into English. As she did so, she corrected a number of errors made by the author. Babbage was so impressed that he encouraged her to publish her notes along with the translation.

By the time Lovelace’s work was completed and published, the paper had become three times longer – and far more sophisticated – than the original. It fully described Babbage’s vision for the analytical engine, as well as how it might be used in mathematics. Ada’s notes also showcased her artistic ability to present a technical analysis in an engaging and exciting style.

Working on her paper, Ada took inspiration from the Lovelace family motto: “Labor is its own reward.” When she died in 1852, the motto was also engraved on her coffin. It was a sadly fitting epitaph, as Ada’s achievements were little acknowledged during her lifetime. It would take almost a century before she was properly recognized.

Grace Hopper was a computer-science trailblazer.

The year was 1941, and the world – with the exception of the United States – was at war. That changed on December 7, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the US declared war on Japan.

Grace Hopper, a 36-year-old mathematics professor at Vassar College, was determined to serve her country. So she quit her job and joined the US Navy. As a mathematician, she assumed that she would spend her military career cracking enemy codes. Instead, the Navy sent her to Harvard to become the third programmer of the world’s first computer.

At Harvard, Hopper worked with Lieutenant Howard Aiken. Aiken had designed the Mark I computer, which ran ballistics problems. The computer had no manual, but that didn’t stop Hopper from mastering it. Unsurprisingly, she quickly became invaluable to Aiken.

The key message here is: Grace Hopper was a computer-science trailblazer.

While at Harvard, Hopper wrote code that solved some of the war’s most challenging problems. It wasn’t until bombs fell on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, however, that she realized some of her calculations had contributed to the creation of the atomic bomb. During this time, she started to keep reusable sections of her programming code – the first step in what would be her most important legacy.

After the war, Hopper became a programmer for UNIVAC, the world’s most powerful computer. As more and more computers were sold, it became increasingly challenging for the limited group of programmers to satisfy customers’ demands. Hopper persuaded her bosses that making programming accessible to nonexperts was the future. When she was put in charge of the new Automatic Programming Department, Hopper immediately created a compiler, which empowered computers to write their own programs.

The idea caught on, and other companies started to produce their own compilers. Hopper foresaw the chaos that would result from virtually every computer brand using their own compiler. So, in 1959, she used her Navy connections to organize a meeting attended by every computer manufacturer in the country. They agreed to develop a universal, simple programming language that could be used in all computers. Soon, common business-oriented language, or COBOL, was born. Ten years after it was implemented, COBOL was the most widely used programming language in the industry.

Today, fully 60 years later, COBOL is still in use – and Grace Hopper is fondly remembered as “Grandma COBOL” for her crucial role in its development.

The women of the ENIAC Six taught themselves to program the first electronic computer.

The word “computer” predates computers as we know them today. Originally, it referred to a person who did complicated mathematical problems by hand. The people who did these computations – the original computers – were mostly women.

In fact, there were so many women working as computers in the first half of the twentieth century that the term “kilogirl” came into use. This measurement referred to roughly a thousand hours of computing labor.

During the Second World War, the female computers could barely keep up with the demand for their work. In a bid to speed things up, physics professor John Mauchly and engineer J. Presper Eckert designed the first electronic computer – the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC. Remarkably, this computer was programmed by a group of six women known as the ENIAC Six.

The key message here is: The women of the ENIAC Six taught themselves to program the first electronic computer.

The ENIAC Six were Kathleen “Kay” McNulty, Betty Jean Jennings, Elizabeth “Betty” Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Frances Bilas, and Ruth Lichterman. They were all former human computers who, in the early days of the war, had spent their time doing ballistics calculations.

There was no manual for the ENIAC, so the six operators had to first teach themselves how to use it and then figure out how to program it. Operating the ENIAC required physical, as well as mental, effort; hundreds of cables had to be replugged for every calculation.

The war ended before the ENIAC became fully operational. However, the machine captured the imagination of the press after members of the ENIAC Six engineered a successful public demonstration in 1946. Sadly, the women did not get the credit they deserved for their hard work.

Betty Jean Jennings and Elizabeth “Betty” Snyder, also known as the two Bettys, were the stars of the ENIAC programming team. They worked together, excelled at spotting each other’s mistakes, and never let their egos get in the way of producing perfect code.

After the war, the two Bettys both went on to have long and pioneering careers in the commercial computer industry. In fact, Snyder was one of the creators of COBOL, the unified computer programming language developed at the instigation of Grace Hopper.

Women played a significant role in building communication networks for social good.

When the US bombed Cambodia in 1969, it set off a wave of protests and strikes. Pam Hardt-English, a computer-science graduate student at UC Berkeley, was soon involved in the protests. But she and her fellow student activists had a bigger idea: they wanted to create communication networks to connect various centers of the counterculture.

By the summer of 1970, Hardt-English and two of her classmates had dropped out of UC Berkeley. They moved into Project One, a large warehouse in San Francisco that was home to a group of hippies. It was there that the vision of Hardt-English and her former classmates would become reality.

The key message here is: Women played a significant role in building communication networks for social good.

Hardt-English and her friends hoped to compile local information and resources, and then share these through a decentralized network. In other words, they were dreaming of the internet.

First, though, they needed a computer – the problem was, there was no such thing as a personal computer at the time. But Hardt-English remained undaunted. She put together a list of 53 institutions and companies who she thought might have a retired computer they’d be willing to donate. Contacting them one by one, she finally struck gold with TransAmerica Leasing Corporation.

In April 1972, the SDS-940, which was the size of “ten refrigerators,” was delivered to Project One. But Hardt-English’s work had only just begun. Over the next three years, she fundraised thousands of dollars to keep the computer, dubbed “Resource One,” running.

It soon became clear that the plan to connect various counterculture hubs was impractical. However, Resource One was still put to good use by various residents of Project One. For example, Mya Shone, Sherry Reson, and Mary Janowitz discovered that social service agencies in the Bay Area didn’t share a central database of the services available for disadvantaged people. So they decided to create a social services referral directory database on Resource One.

Since social workers couldn’t directly access the database themselves, the volunteers posted printouts of the directory every month. Eventually, every library in the city – as well as the Department of Social Services – had a copy.

When Sherry, Mary, and Mya moved on, the United Way charity took over. Eventually, the database ended up at the San Francisco Public Library, where it remained until 2009. The social services referral directory represents one of the earliest efforts to apply computing for social good.

Elizabeth “Jake” Feinler was responsible for an important precursor to the internet.

Before the internet, there was the ARPANET – an early online network funded by the US military and built in 1969. The ARPANET allowed scientists at US universities to share resources and communicate with each other.

By 1972, the ARPANET had around 30 connections, and it became clear that the growing network needed to be better organized. The central office for ARPANET affairs – the Network Information Center, or NIC – was part of the Stanford Research Institute. The computer engineers there were too busy to take on the task, however. So it went to Elizabeth “Jake” Feinler, a chemist-turned-information scientist. In taking charge of the NIC, Feinler’s job would be to maintain order on the early internet.

The key message here is: Elizabeth “Jake” Feinler was responsible for an important precursor to the internet.

Feinler’s first task at the NIC was to create a resource handbook for the ARPANET. This involved documenting all the information about each site hosted on the network. Within a few weeks, Feinler went from knowing nothing about the ARPANET to becoming its definitive authority. The resource handbook, printed on paper, made it easier to find out who was on the ARPANET; you could call it the first internet browser.

As time passed, Feinler’s responsibilities grew – eventually encompassing all the major organizational tasks for the growing network. She was in charge of registering all new hosts on the network, as well as indexing all the most important conversations that took place there. The NIC also served as the Google of its time. Host sites didn’t advertise their resources, so users looking for information would come to Feinler, who knew where everything was on the ARPANET. As demand grew, she eventually developed a people-finder on the network.

As the network expanded, it became necessary to create a more orderly system for giving sites names and addresses – the identifying information we know as “domain names” today. Feinler suggested the creation of generic categories based on where computers were located: “.mil” for the military, “.gov” for the government, “.edu” for education, and “.com” for commercial businesses.

And that’s just one of Feinler’s innovations still in use on the internet today. Eventually, the NIC went from a two-person team to an eleven-million-dollar project. Once again in computing history, we’ve seen a woman take on a role that appeared mundane to men – but that ultimately proved to be of incredible importance.

One of the earliest social media networks, Echo, was created by a woman and featured the first influencer.

Stacy Horn was a graduate student in New York City in the early 1980s when she joined The WELL, an online community based in California. Horn enjoyed the conversations with journalists, ex-hippies, and computer-programming enthusiasts – but she soon tired of it. Dialing up to The WELL in California was like making a long-distance call, so her phone bill was huge. She craved a community that had a more authentic New York City feel, too.

So, in 1990, Horn created her own community, which she called the “East Coast Hang-Out,” or Echo.

The key message here is: One of the earliest social media networks, Echo, was created by a woman and featured the first influencer.

Right from Echo’s inception, Horn went to extraordinary lengths to find “Echoids,” as she called her platform’s users. Every night, she would visit parties, art openings, and museums, hoping to find interesting people to join Echo. This often meant inviting them to her apartment – at the time, not everyone was computer literate, and Horn had to teach new members how to use the platform.

Back in the 1980s, only 10 to 15 percent of internet users were female. So Horn made a special effort to recruit other women to the platform.

Horn wanted Echo to be an extension of the real world, so she created both common and private spaces. The latter were popular with Echoids, and soon there were private areas for women, men, recovering addicts, people under 30, and more.

In 1994, Echoids helped make cultural history. While the nation was gripped by TV coverage of O.J. Simpson’s Bronco chase, Echoids posted their immediate reactions on the platform in real time. They called it “simulcasting.” Today, of course, we call it “live-tweeting.”

Echo also foreshadowed another modern-day social-media phenomenon: the influencer. As a teenager in the 1970s, Marisa Bowe honed her online conversational skills after coming across the live chat function on her father’s computer terminal.

After moving to New York in the 1980s, Bowe discovered Echo – and it became her passion. She spent so much time on the platform that her real-life friends were worried about her. Although shy in person, Bowe was gregarious online and was chosen by Horn to create stimulating discussions on the platform. She became so popular that she developed a cult following among her fellow Echoids and was treated like a mini-celebrity during their monthly meetups.

Dame Wendy Hall innovated in the field of hypertext, which produced the World Wide Web.

Tim Berners-Lee is famous for inventing the World Wide Web. That means he invented the internet, right?

Not so fast. The internet is a network of computers, while the World Wide Web is a network of interconnected pages built in a communal language called Hypertext Markup Language, or HTML.

HTML is the descendant of sophisticated hypertext systems that a number of women developed in the 1980s. Among them was Dame Wendy Hall, who, at the time, was a computer-science lecturer at the University of Southampton in England.

The key message here is: Dame Wendy Hall innovated in the field of hypertext, which produced the World Wide Web.

Wendy Hall’s interest in computer science was stirred in 1986. The BBC was commemorating the 900th anniversary of the Domesday Book, an eleventh-century census in England. Today, the BBC might mark the Domesday Book anniversary by presenting a modern snapshot of life on a beautiful, interactive website. However, the World Wide Web didn’t exist at the time, so the presentation was made on two laser discs. Hall was fascinated with how the material was shown and intrigued by the possibilities of interactive media.

Her interest in the field grew even more during a 1989 sabbatical at the University of Michigan, when she discovered that clickable multimedia was a hugely popular discipline. The Americans called it “hypertext” or “hypermedia.” She returned to Southampton bursting with ideas for a new hypertext system.

The university archivist heard about Hall’s interest and approached her with a project. Years earlier, the archives of the Earl of Mountbatten had been donated to the university. These included photographs, speeches, and videos. Hall put together a team to develop a hypertext system that would allow for easy browsing of the archives on a computer. By Christmas 1989, Microcosm was born.

But Microcosm was just one of a number of hypertext systems being created around the world. Another was the World Wide Web, which was developed by Tim Berners-Lee. His academic colleagues were unimpressed with its comparative lack of sophistication, but it soon gained popularity because it was simple and free to use.

Initially, Hall believed that Microcosm could coexist alongside the Web, and she put her efforts into commercializing her hypertext system. But by then, the Web was everyone’s platform of choice.

Jaime Levy is a digital-publishing pioneer.

At the height of the dotcom bubble in New York City, Jaime Levy dubbed herself “the Kurt Cobain of the Internet.” It was a grandiose title, but not totally unwarranted. Growing up in Southern California, Levy had been more interested in the punk rock scene than in computers. That changed when a boyfriend showed her how to create computer animations. Levy was captivated.

It was while studying at New York University that Levy experimented with the interactive media that would bring her fame.

The key message here is: Jaime Levy is a digital-publishing pioneer.

After graduating in 1990, Levy moved to Los Angeles where she produced an electronic magazine on a floppy disc called Electronic Hollywood. It was full of graphics, animations, and games, along with text. Levy called it “my, sorta, digital graffiti.” She distributed the discs to indie book and record stores in Los Angeles, where they regularly sold out. Soon, she was getting media attention for her work.

Levy returned to New York City, where she became the first real celebrity of Silicon Alley – NYC’s answer to Silicon Valley. Rock star Billy Idol was a fan and asked her to create one of her trademark floppy discs to accompany his album Cyberpunk. The album didn’t do well, but Levy’s star power kept rising. When she discovered the first web browser, Mosaic, she realized that her electronic magazines were websites – even before websites existed. She decided that this was her future.

In 1995, Levy got a major opportunity: she was hired as creative director of a new online magazine called Word. There, she’d have the opportunity to apply her innovative electronic-publishing skills on the Web. The first person she brought on board was Marisa Bowe, the early influencer whom she’d met via the online community Echo.

Levy and Bowe excelled in producing work that really pushed the boundaries of what was possible with online publishing. By 1998, the online publication was getting one to two million hits every week. It received acclaim from big shots like Newsweek and the New York Times.

Levy didn’t stay the course, though. She left Word just 18 months later, expecting to be bombarded with creative opportunities. Instead, she found that these had dried up and been replaced by mostly corporate gigs.

Levy may not be a household name now, but her groundbreaking work in the 1990s demonstrated the full creative possibilities of digital publishing.


The key message in these summaries:

Women were the backbone of the technological age. They were also poorly rewarded for their endeavors, disregarded despite their expertise, and written out of history. Still, their innovations live on today in the fields of social networking, the internet, and computer programming – to name just a few. Without the mental labor of women, our modern world would be unrecognizable.

About the author

Claire L. Evans is a journalist and the lead singer of the Grammy-nominated pop duo YACHT. She is the founding editor of Terraform, Vice’s science-fiction vertical, and contributes to a variety of publications including Vice, the Guardian, Wired, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Quartz. Evans is also a graduate advisor at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California.