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Women in STEM; now and before; Part 1: Woven Memory Core

Discussion of the so-called “STEM Gap” has become increasingly more common over the past few decades. Corporations, institutions, universities, and government organizations around the world have collectively decided to put money and resources into bringing women into the professional fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). There are many reasons to explain why we don’t see more women in these fields including traditional gender and family roles and cultural expectations, workplace inequities, systemic educational barriers, and sexism. Quite frequently, a lack of empowerment or representation is also cited. It’s certainly difficult to picture yourself in a role that you’ve never seen occupied by someone that looks like you, right? A major flaw with the broader “Women in STEM” movement, however, is that it frequently fails to recognize the contributions that women have made to these fields throughout history. The popular narrative seems to suggest that women need to be introduced to science, technology, engineering, and math when what we should really be doing is welcoming them back.

Image: Kaushik Patowary / Wikimedia Commons

And we can’t have this conversation without also addressing the lack of representation of women of color in these fields too; A group that has had their contributions to innovation across these fields erased with even more vigor. Made popular by the book (and eventually the movie) Hidden Figures, the story of three African-American women, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, and their pivotal service to NASA has entered our mainstream conversation about women and women of color in STEM. While this addition to our collective knowledge is important and essential, we must also recognize that while this story survives, so many others have been lost to history.

Mary Jackson; Image: NASA Langley Research Center

In our research behind the scenes producing Women Interwoven, we’ve encountered incredible examples of women who have used the wisdom of handicraft (currently gendered female) to bring advancements into the STEM fields (currently gendered male). A favorite example of this is the woven memory core that was used in the NASA Apollo missions that brought astronauts safely into space.

"64-bit Chip" by jurvetson is licensed with CC BY 2.0; Image: Creative Commons

In this case, when we say woven we mean…” Woven!” These small-scale computers were used to store information used for real-time tracking and they were woven by hand by women. NASA hired women from textile factories to construct these objects and they trusted them to create something to the exact specifications using textile structures like rope making along with warp and weft weaving. Women collaborated to design the structures as well as create them. Most notably, Margaret Hamilton, the director of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory developed an error detection system for the woven memory cores.

Because of the contributions, these women made both on and off the loom, the USA was able to successfully land the Apollo 11 on the moon.

Image: Kaushik Patowary / Wikimedia Commons

If you’re interested in learning more about the contributions of women in computing, check out these resources, listed below. And stay tuned for more stories on our blog and eventually in the documentary. We are dedicated to bringing visibility to the women that have changed the world.

  • Exploring Textiles and Electronics: Stitching Worlds; Edited by Ebru Kurbak

  • Programmed Inequity; by Marie Hicks

  • Broad Band: The untold story of the women who made the internet; By Claire Evans

And if you wanted to get involved in a creative project connected to weaving core memory, check out Samantha Shorey’s Making Core Memory Project where you can learn how to weave within the context of this particular history.

"Memories of the Saturn V" by jurvetson is licensed with CC BY 2.0; Image: Creative Commons

"Memories of the Saturn V" by jurvetson is licensed with CC BY 2.0; Image: Creative Commons

"Primitive Memories" by jurvetson is licensed with CC BY 2.0; Image: Creative Commons


Making Core Memory: Design Inquiry into Gendered Legacies of Engineering and Craftwork; By Daniela K. Rosner, Samantha Shorey, Brock Craft, and Helen Remick

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