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1969 and 1970 at Bell Labs (larryluckham.com)
214 points by colinprince 3 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 75 comments

All these comments on the number of women in the photographs and "what happened to all the women in tech?" ... I'm just thinking the photographer was a man with a plan.

Anyway heres Wonderwall https://web.archive.org/web/20190202185041/http://www.larryl...

What happened to the women in tech is that the clerical jobs were all replaced by computers.

I'm still not clear how office work has improved by me not having a secretary. The two hours a day I waste on email, meeting planning etc would pay someone a comfortable wage and mean I don't have to be bothered all the time by emails that I probably don't need to answer, unless it's from those two people.

In my current gig we have an actual full time office manager and it's fucking amazing.

The women who used to be secretaries (some subset of them, at least) are now lawyers, doctors, investors, managers, engineers, etc.

That's always been the point of eliminating jobs: it frees up the people who used to do those jobs to do other things.

The jobs created in the last 20 years have been worse paid and less secure than the jobs that were destroyed. The granddaughters of the 60s secretaries are baristas, nurses, cleaners, retail workers and other jobs with terrible working conditions and security.

That's the problem of the current system, losing jobs is fine as long as they are replaced by better jobs. When they are replaced by worse jobs you have a broken system. And we have a very broken system.

Ironically it doesn't free up the people who used to do them to go about doing what they want with their time - it only frees them up in the same way that the computer will free up memory, the people are able to be allocated to other places in the economy. The observation that automation tends not to free people in any genuine sense even runs against Keynes' predictions for how much we'd be working today.

UK, non-government public sector, very senior people still have secretaries - often described as personal assistants. The PAs handle interfacing and information flow, the senior people can get on with the thinking.

A PA is not a secretary years ago I worked on organising a large event and one of the committee member was the PA to the county fire chief.

She was awesome, at the first meeting she had worked out from previous years all the key things the other members of the committee needed to do - written all the letters and handed them to us to sign.

That sounds exactly like a secretary.

> I'm still not clear how office work has improved by me not having a secretary

The problem is the "improvement" is a financial one for the company rather than a workflow improvement at the employee level.

when people talk about "women in tech" they usually don't mean secretaries but women doing mathematics, engineering and programming.

PS: The best secretary I ever had was male; some of the smartest CS-folks I know are women.

There may be a little bit of a selection bias going on - as you described - but it is worth remembering that back in the 50s and possibly 60s system administrators did used to be quite a female dominated role because they used to manage the cypher machines during the second world war while the men went off to fight and thus that trend of seeing women in server rooms continued a little while after.

Sadly the designing and building those machines were still male dominated - the female role was more administrative than what we now think of as a "sysadmin".

As for what caused the shift to become so male dominated. I couldn't say for sure. I have a few theories but I wont share them as they're largely speculative.

They might well have been keypunch staff back in those days a lot of code was written long hand and send of to the punchroom to be keyed in.

Ahh yes, I'd forgotten about them. We had a team of 4 or 5 keypunchers at one of the of the companies I worked for near the start of my career.

And muuch of the time, men would work in more phisical jobs like factories, and construction, that where booming in this days, and where well paid jobs.

Home computers and male nerds suddenly having an advantage when they start at Uni is what happened.

Nothing but blank pages in Firefox without Javascript, which I disable for non-HTTPS protected sites. If your site needs Javascript to display a simple image on an HTML page, please consider your users and their accessibility needs.

I'm in Chrome with...I don't know, some add-ons, and the whole thing is basically broken for me.

What an absolute POS gallery app.

Something wrong with using static HTML to display all of a couple dozen jpegs?

Here is a static gallery version

Trying to understand how disabling javascript is related to accessibility needs. Mind helping me out?

As someone who uses voice software, sometimes to see, sometimes to control... JS is hell.

It can hijack elements after I think I know what they contain.

It can abandon the DOM and use the canvas.

And most of the time if you're rebuilding elements in JS the developer forgets to tag things correctly... So all I know is that there's an img that has appeared out of nowhere.

Love your pictures!! Wow, it actually looks like a bunch of people who are happy to be there.

Look at that Tek scope on the scope cart! I purchased one of those as an undergrad in EECE, what a great old scope.

Also, is the part of your website that loads images behind a 1970s switch at bell labs, perhaps? :) I thank the other HN members for the mirrors.

What happened to all the women? This office would make diversity/inclusion officers salivate.

There are great essays on the topic, but basically - they were kicked out when the position started to earn money for the business.

Programmed Inequality by Marie Hicks [0] is a great introduction to some of the history.

As my mother was a software engineer in the 70s, it's so incredibly upsetting to hear folks describe how it's just an inherently male interest, forgetting the history of sexism that just happened.

[0]: https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/programmed-inequality

>Programmed Inequality by Marie Hicks [0] is a great introduction to some of the history.

That's largely bullshit.

The position of 'programmer' today would be that of a systems architect from 1960. The position of 'programmer' of 1960 is the linker/assembler program of today. The jobs where women used to be a majority of the staff were simply automated away.

Before you cry sexism the position of CNC programmer, a largely male dominated profession, has suffered from the same. With the job going from being a hugely skilled profession in the 1960s to being something you press a button in a cam package, with the pay dropping correspondingly from the 60s to today.

That’s all based on the potentially dangerous assumption that the majority of women were working in now obsolete jobs. Your post also implies that those same women weren’t qualified to work other jobs even after their old jobs were retired.

I would also say that the assumption isn’t entirely correct based on the percentage of CS graduates that were female around that time compared to today. Maybe these early women in tech could transfer to other positions but got rejected on application because of biases among employers?

Well into the 90s one of my aunts was a programmer on the 5ESS switch code, mission-critical stuff that needed to be 99.9995% reliable. She was eventually laid off when Lucent abandoned the line and she transitioned into a far more lucrative career as a realtor. I know other ladies of my mother's generation (I was born in 1970) who worked at IBM and the like.

If you look at female percentage of enrollment in CS courses, you will find it actually declined since the 70s, in part because PCs were aggressively marketed towards boys only. In other words, we've regressed as an industry.

Agreed, when I was a kid I met a programmer who used to be a computer. She was older than my dad, and he considered her an expert in his 30s. Punch cards were the rage.

Since then, I've met 2 women who worked directly at Bell Labs (with LeCun) in the 90s, both of whom I would consider experts in AI (and the present tools of DL), even though they are now retired. They started studying CS in the 70s.

The real boom happened in the 80-90s when it wasn't a respected field and educated women went into Medicine, Law, Marketing... It's only in the last 15-20 years that programming has been considered a "real" major. Before that most programmers had an education in something else.

> in part because PCs were aggressively marketed towards boys only.

I've seen this repeated a lot without, as far as I can see, any credible evidence that (a) this was actually the case and (b) that the causality worked the way indicated.

To me, it's at best a classic "wet roads cause rain" fallacy that doesn't make sense at any level.

1. Companies are dollar driven

This idea that companies would forego a massive market in order to...I don't know, "keep the girls out of computers" just doesn't make any sense. Even typing these words is weird, the idea is just so utterly ludicrous.

And the idea that it might have been just oversight also doesn't wash. At least one company would have at some point asked the question, tried it out and made a killing.

2. Nobody wanted to keep girls out

Heck, I grew up in the 80s, and the very last thing on the mind of any of us computer nerds was "oh my god, we need to keep the girls away from this stuff". We would have given almost anything to get more girls interested. They just weren't.

3. The effects of marketing are vastly overstated

Us computer nerds did not want computers because they were "marketed towards" us. We wanted computers because we really wanted computers. In fact, I had no awareness of computers until exposed to Apple IIs in summer camp, first a little BASIC and then shape tables. Oh boy, shape tables! And yes, the computers were open to anyone who wanted.

In fact, we got an Apple, despite all the marketing material I remember being the Tandy catalogs. They even had a 68K based model at that time!

4. The ads were gender neutral

Although I don't remember much in terms of ads, what I remember was fairly neutral. As a quick check, I did a Google image search and the ads were quite balanced, for example families grouped around a computer with mom+dad+girl+boy.

> Although I don't remember much in terms of ads, what I remember was fairly neutral. As a quick check, I did a Google image search and the ads were quite balanced, for example families grouped around a computer with mom+dad+girl+boy.

Hoo boy, are you naive. I still have computer mags from the 1980s (and maybe I have a pack-rat problem, but that's not important now).

A awful lot of the hardware ads had buxom nubile while female models, sometimes draped over the machine, sometimes with a sultry expression (why are you biting your lip over a freakin' backup tape system, woman?), often with caked-on hooker makeup. The software ads almost always had some young white man with an IBM-approved white shirt and pocket protector.

Ads in popular computer mags in the 1980s were definitely target-marketed towards white male hetero people. To claim the advertizing was ineffective and such people "just wanted" the devices is disingenuous at best.

> (why are you biting your lip over a freakin' backup tape system, woman?),

Hmm...and young boys are the target market for backup tape systems?

Maybe I should have been more specific: the context was home computers, not the professional systems. I thought that much was obvious.

And even there, do you seriously think that the motivation for those ads was "oh, we must make sure that women don't enter the profession" or was it more "we know that 95+% of our target audience is male" and so they used the same sort of tactics that were used to sell cars and auto tuning products[1]?

Again: wet roads do not cause rain.

[1] https://www.autobild.de/bilder/die-goldenen-jahre-von-d-w-83...

> why are you biting your lip over a freakin' backup tape system, woman?

Backup tape systems are sexy, man. That woman is a real geek!

To the degree there's something to the PCs became a thing mostly with teenage boys, which discouraged others from getting involved with computers at a later age... And I think there probably is. You need look no further than skeptical comments here about hiring someone who didn't have a "passion" for computers from a young age. Or college curricula with entry-level courses that clearly assume prior familiarity with computers. But it's probably more of a connection between PCs and gaming.

Which means that dynamic should be changing again as PCs are far less relevant as a gamer platform. Though arguably the environment is established and is hard to change as a result.

> If you look at female percentage of enrollment in CS courses, you will find it actually declined since the 70s

I agree with your points, but I wonder if looking at CS won’t reveal the scope or timing of the problem. Based on my own experience entering the workforce mid-90s, it was only sometime in the 90s when the majority of software developers had CS coursework. When I started near a majority had physics, math, engineering and other backgrounds, with their computing experience being industrial.

    If you look at female percentage of enrollment in CS
    courses, you will find it actually declined since 
    the 70s
It apparently peaked at 1984: https://www.computerworld.com/article/2474991/women-computer...

Men took their jobs. At the time, programming wasn't held in such high esteem by the general populace since it wasn't far removed from the menial busy work of shuffling around card stacks and tape reels. When it became more lucrative, the demographics shifted.

Not only that, but everyone's got some fashion sense here, while still dressing professionally. Today, there'd be nothing but grey and beige. The office is also colorful and better-decorated than most these days.

It was the end of the 60s, people! My personal experience of that time was that my dad was in his heyday, he worked at IBM as an engineer. I remember seeing equipment like that in the early 70s when I visited him at work. People dressed in flamboyant clothes, had long hair, a lot more counter-cultural acceptance, in certain circles at least.

Yep, ~1969 seems like peak USA in a number of ways. Music, psychedelics, muscle cars / car styling in general, clothing, journalism, what else?

Lead in the air we breath. Coincides pretty much with muscle cars. Once they removed lead from gasoline, muscle cars withered for a few decades.

Indoor smoking.

Rampant discrimination, against ethnic minorities, women, and LGBTQ.

The "good ole days" generally aren't as good as we remember them.


My whole adult life I wished I was living in a repeat of the 60s. Not because of the war or turmoil, sexism, racism, murder of people like MLK (sounds bad when you put it that way), but because of the freedom, the sense that america was moving forward. We didn't have our best days behind us. I never had that in my adult life.

Rose colored glasses. The 60s had the most terrifying increase in crime in living memory (one of many graphs: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crime_in_the_United_States#/...). Until MLKs death he and other civil rights movement leaders were incredibly unpopular (check polling of time). By most measures, now is less of a time when the best days are behind us.

Did you link to the right graph? That one shows most of the 60s still safer than the 00s.

It's the rate of change from good to bad that's scary. Crime doubled in 10 years!

That may be true, but I missed out on wild sex, drugs, rock and roll. And woodstock. :-)

For one thing I guess in these times the keyboard was still something associated with a female role.

Then what perhaps also contributed is the roles of workers by collar color. Coding was perhaps more considered manual labor (blue collar). Yet people seem to forget it's actually the computers doing the manual labor. The developer is much more a complex designer role thinking up the execution architecture.

So we got the waterfall movement where it was believed the higher payed intellectual roles didn't need to know how to code. I think this caused many men and women shifting towards those roles. We got the feminist movement which was very much focused on getting women into those higher payed top jobs. Coding wasn't considered one of those.

Then perhaps the education system is partly to blame. It has become a commercial enterprise making sexy promises for a future life. In earlier times it was more common to start at the bottom and work/promote your way up the career ladder. You would move up because you were more valuable doing other things. Other people could take over parts of your job. In our current time the idea is that you can just get some university degree, skip all the lower jobs and stream in sideways. This leaves the "upper jobs" somewhat disconnected from the "lower jobs". It perhaps causes some dysfunctional organizations. Especially in Europe.

I think this is what "the establishment" dictates. Meanwhile there were still those creative people getting their hands dirty hacking up cool solutions in their basements, garages and attics. Much more driven by a certain attitude than the safety and promises of a certain education. Their products simply outperformed the ones coming from the establishment.

We get the weird situation we see today.

I have a book from a minicomputer company I worked for in the late eighties and nineties. A Year in Development. Basically documentation of projects and people in 1984 or 85. Showed it to a friend of mine and her first reaction was Wow, so many women.

What happened to all the women? This office would make diversity/inclusion officers salivate.

I don't know what slideshow you're looking at, but the vast majority of the pictures I see are women.






The real horror is how that page hijacks keypresses and touch gestures. It's unusable with Javascript on.

We are agreeing. To expand:

What happened to all the women in tech fields? This office would make diversity/inclusion officers (who are modern additions to organizations) salivate, because current workplaces do not look like this slideshow.

I've spent most of my career in Telecom, this is how my experience in telecom is, AT&T got into equal opportunity early, and the notion stayed with the company past divestiture.

"What happened to all the women? This office would make diversity/inclusion officers salivate."

The OP meant, if you were to do a slideshow now, there would probably be considerably fewer women now.

The GP may have been saying, "What happened [recently] to all the women [that they're not around any more]?"

One thing that really evolved since then is chairs. How could people manage to sit all day on chairs like this!



One of the things I notice is that there is not a single Asian male in any of the photos.

If you went into any software office around Oakland, CA or the larger Bay Area now, I would guess that 30-50% (if not more) of the programmers you see would be Asian males.

I worked for a computer company in the Boston area in the late 80s/90s and there were a minuscule number of Asians. We did some support work for legacy products in India through a partner and had a Japanese subsidiary but it was a rarity for any people from those orgs to be located in the US.

Well until '65 there were agressive immigration restrictions on Asians, so I expect that would reduce the number available with the required skills.

I grew up in San Jose. There were Asians most of them were well assimilated Japanese and Chinese who's families immigrated before 1930. Weren't that many maybe 1 out of 10.

The big immigration came later in the 1980's with the end of the Vietnam war/killing fields, and opening of China. A lot of ethnic Chinese in South East Asia fled in the 1970-80's.

And these pictures are from Oakland circa 1970.

India was quite closed off until relatively recently its only in the mid 80's that India began to compete when it abandond soviet style central control. "you can have any car you like as long as its a hundistan ambassador"

Great pictures. In one picture there is some flowchart on chalkboard. I'm always curious on how did flowchart symbols came to be. For example I'm pleasantly surprised that the disk plate/drum symbol (used to signify databases) that is drawn on chalkboard, which is prevalent nowadays is also used in 60s.

Back then it made literal sense. Now it's as symbolic as a floppy disk icon.

Great pictures! As a remote developer for SaaS company, and as someone who does both commercialized-work and commercialized-play on his laptop, I now see that I enjoy looking at people contributing to research by working on computers, back when computers were a subject of research.

Notice interesting thing - a lot of women in the pictures. My mom worked with a large mainframe in early 80's and from what she told me, majority of employees were women. They had just few guys, they quickly got taken out of dating pool.

My mom worked with a large mainframe in early 80's and from what she told me, majority if employees were women.

I remember this, too.

In fact, the first two people who taught me how to use a computer (back in 8" floppy disk and 2K RAM days) were women. And nuns.

I just finished the book "Where Wizards Stay Up Late" about the early history of the internet and I highly recommend it. It covers the invention of packet switching, ARPANET, ethernet, email and a lot of stages the "internet" went through post ARPANET.

Seeing these pictures really helps bring the people from this time period in the book to life for me.

This is one of the coolest things I've seen posted on HN.

I totally agree.

BTW, I'm having problems getting all the pictures rendered in my browser (Safari), but the ones I've been able to see are really inpirational.

I teach mostly (+95%) men in audio design studies at university level and women are painfully lacking in the field. It would certainly help make the field richer, more interesting, and more dynamic (not only for us men, but in general),if there was more gender diversity in tech in general and audio (this is where I see it the most because it's my domain) in particular.

So for those who are curious to know more about this:


1969 and 1970. That was the time Bell Labs withdrew from MULTICS project and a couple of developers who found themselves without a job starter working internally on a little word processor suite called UNIX.

Thanks to all these retro filter apps, these pictures look surprisingly up to date.

It does not look like a memory from the past but like a retro picture shooting. Weird.

Wonderful photos and the color is superb. The people look happy and seem relaxed. I'm also really loving the colored theme of the controls that extends to the desks and teletype machines. The blue is beautiful. Fantastic.

It's funny how current these photos seem when they're colored like contemporary photos.

This went around a little while ago and at that time I could find no other information about a Bell Labs facility in Oakland. Does anyone have any information about that? Where was it?

great photos. I kinda envy those who could live at that time. See tech evolve in such a fast pace. It must been very exciting.

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