An ongoing and incomplete 20th century history of female “nimble fingers” in computing.
Hilda G. Carpenter weaves the first prototype of magnetic core memory. She is never credited by name in any reports. Reports indicate one plane of core memory can be completed in about 40 hours (Monteiro 2017).
Laid-off female textile workers are recruited to weave the core rope memory for Apollo space missions. It is dubbed the “little old lady” or LOL method (Monteiro 2017).
Fairchild Semiconductor opens an assembly plant on the Navajo reservation in Shiprock, NM (N 923) in an act of “insourcing.” “Reservations provided spaces of exception to US laws on minimum wage; in this way they were like foreign countries, but in other ways American mythologies around Indianness gave these workers a desirable identity as culturally foreign yet familiar“ (Nakamura 2014b). Nearly all of the workers at the plant are female.
IBM relocates core memory production to Taiwan and Japan to cut costs (Monteiro 2017).
Fairchild produces a marketing brochure highlighting Shiprock’s success. It is attributed to the innate weaving and crafting capabilities of Navajo women that can be translated to circuit building. It is both their race and gender that make them the ideal laborer since the “untapped wealth of natural characteristics of the Navajo . . . the inherent flexibility and dexterity of the Indians” : “For example, after years of rug weaving, Indians were able to visualize complicated patterns and could, therefore, memorize complex integrated circuit designs and make subjective decisions in sorting and quality control” (Nakamura 2014a).
“[Prior] to its closing, Fairchild employed 922 Navajos, most of whom were women. Fairchild was one of the largest employers of Navajo labor on the reservation, second only to public sector employees, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Navajo nation.” (Nakamura 2014b)
Protesters with the American Indian Movement occupy the plant, eventually resulting in its permanent shut down (Nakamura 2014b).
In reflecting on Shiprock, Fairchild Semiconductor executive Charlie Sporck reports “It never worked out, though. We were really screwing up the whole societal structure at the Indian tribe. You know, the women were making money and the guys were drinking it up and it was a failure” (Nakamura 2014b).
The Aymara Weavers in Bolivia are recruited to weave intricate cardiac devices for children with congenital heart defects (Great Big Story 2017, Heath et al 2018).
Draper Laboratories. 1962. “LINC (Laboratory Instrument Computer) Development Group.” Computer History Museum. c 1962. http://www.computerhistory.org/collections/catalog/102622651.
“Fairchild Semiconductor Brochure.” 1969. Fairchild Semiconductor. http://archive.computerhistory.org/resources/access/text/2014/07/102725169-05-01-acc.pdf.
Great Big Story. 2017. “The Life-Saving Weaving of Bolivia’s Indigenous Women.” YouTube. April 25, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dHDDQVB2SnE.
Heath, Alexandra, Alexander Javois, and Franz Freudenthal. 2018. “Weaving Indigenous Textile Art Into Cardiac Devices.” Journal of American Medical Association, The Arts and Medicine, 319 (10): 966–67. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2018.0387.
Monteiro, Stephen. 2017. The Fabric of Interface: Mobile Media, Design, and Gender. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Nakamura, Lisa. 2014a. “Indigenous Circuits.” Computer History Museum. February 1, 2014. http://www.computerhistory.org/atchm/indigenous-circuits/.
Nakamura, Lisa. 2014b. “Indigenous Circuits: Navajo Women and the Racialization of Early Electronic Manufacture.” American Quarterly 66 (4): 919–41. https://doi.org/10.1353/aq.2014.0070.
oisiaa. 2011. “Weaving Software into Core Memory by Hand.” YouTube. March 16, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P12r8DKHsak.