“Women’s Work” and the Hidden History of Computer Science and Engineering

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The photo above is of a woman weaving core memory. Sparkfun is wrapping up Women’s History Month by talking about the influence of work traditionally done by women on the fields of computer science and engineering. From using binary code to manually weaving memory cores for the Apollo Missions, women have been at the forefront of many innovations in the industry without proper credit. Via Sparkfun

Weaving has traditionally been thought of as “women’s work” for many centuries. In many cultures around the world, women were responsible for making cloth for their families and communities, often using simple hand-held looms. Weaving was seen as an important domestic skill, passed down from mother to daughter, and it required patience, attention to detail, and manual dexterity – qualities that were often associated with women.

Despite weaving being so integral to society, however, it was often undervalued and underpaid. Women weavers were frequently paid less than men for similar work, and were often excluded from guilds or other professional associations.

The influence of weaving as an art form on the creation of computer science and engineering is rooted in the concept of binary code. Binary code is a system of representing information using only two symbols, typically 0 and 1, and I’m sure you’re familiar with it. This system is the foundation of modern computing and is used to represent everything from text and images to complex algorithms.

Most notably, binary code is used in graphics like this to make sure people know something cyberpunk-adjacent is going on
The idea of using a binary code to represent information is not a new one; it’s been used in many different cultures throughout history in the art of weaving. Weaving involves the interlacing of threads in a specific pattern to create a textile. In weaving, binary code was used to represent the interlacing of threads in a specific pattern. Each thread in a weave can be thought of as either “on” or “off” depending on its position in the pattern. For example, in a basic plain weave, the weft thread alternates over and under the warp threads, creating a pattern of 1s and 0s. This pattern could be extended to more complex weaves, where different combinations of over and under create more intricate designs.

Weavers would use a system of dots and dashes to represent the 1s and 0s in the pattern. A dot would represent an “on” thread, while a dash would represent an “off” thread. This system of representing patterns allowed weavers to create complex designs using a binary code long before computers existed.

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