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Vol.32 No.2 May 1998

Women in Computer Graphics

Carl Machover
Machover Associates Corp.

May 98 Columns
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Carl Machover
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In this gender-free age, we sometimes forget how difficult it was for women to break into most fields, and computer graphics was certainly no exception. Today, we have hundreds of women in the computer graphics field holding high positions in industry (e.g. Carol Bartz, President of AutoDesk) and in academia (e.g. Judy Brown, University of Iowa). However, in the pre-SIGGRAPH days of the late ‘50s, ‘60s and early ‘70s, this was not the case. The woman in technology with the highest visibility was Commander Grace Hopper, but then one was hard pressed to identify others. The Society for Information Displays honored Frances Rice Darn, an Army display scientist, by creating the Frances Rice Darn Memorial Award.

Alyce Branum, guest author of this Pioneers column, is among our early women computer graphics pioneers. She began work for me at Information Displays in 1969, having come from a technical staff position with Bunker Ramo. She later went on to work in computer graphics positions at Xynetics, Digital Equipment Corporation, Summagraphics and IBM. Alyce talks about her early experiences, and those of some of the other women computer graphics pioneers.

Memories of the Good Ole Girls

Alyce Branum

What follows are the memories of a few of the "good ole girls" of computer graphics. This should not in any way be taken as a comprehensive statistical study. To write this column, I've called upon the experiences of several of my friends who also worked in computer graphics prior to 1974 when the first SIGGRAPH conference was held. They are Tammy Barnes, Sherry Keowan, Rita Lancaster and Elaine Sonderegger. In addition, I drew upon memories of Jackie Potts.

As we talked, several key themes fell into place. First, contrary to popular opinion, we had little experience with prejudice. Second, we had some great opportunities that would not have been open to us otherwise. And third, there existed in the computer graphics industry as a whole, and especially among the women, a unique sense of camaraderie and mentoring.

Had the Needed Skills

Not only was there little prejudice, most of us literally fell into our jobs. It didn't seem to matter if we were women or green coneheads -- we had the unique education and skills that were desperately needed to do the job.

Rita Lancaster, who handled all of the initial marketing and technical support for Digital's VT-11 (introduced in 1973) said, "I didn't choose it (computer graphics); it chose me. I wanted to come back to Digital (from Electro Scientific Industries in Oregon), and that was the only job offered."

Tammy Barnes, after founding Autotrol with her husband Bill, in 1959, was forced into sales because she couldn't find any one else who could do the job.

I was hired by Bunker Ramo because, in the age of Fortran, I could micro-program. The fact that the job included graphics programming was not even mentioned!

Sherry Keowan tells an inspiring story about working for a high tech company in microfiche that was acquired and moved to Texas. The company's VP of Engineering got a call from Ken Anderson (one of Vector General's founders) who expressed his sympathy and offered to interview employees who wished to remain in California. As a result, Sherry became employee number nine at Vector General in 1971. In 1982, she became a Vice President, and was the first female Vice President of a high tech company in Southern California.

This does not mean that our lives were free of “gender incidents.” Today we look back and really appreciate the humor in some of the things that happened. Elaine Sonderegger speaks of developing software for the Federal Aviation Agency while working for Bolt Branek and Neumen from 1969-73. When it came time to test the software, she was not allowed in the airplane's cockpit because "the passengers might get upset."

In 1967 while I was working for Bunker Ramo, some modifications were required to the contour plotting software on scientific navy ships. Much to the distress of the Navy -- accustomed to bringing male programmers on board for a two to three week voyage -- I was the only one technically qualified to make the changes. Unable to accommodate a woman, the ship put into port at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for a few weeks. I was allowed on board during the day, under heavy escort and locked into a frigid room below deck to do my work. To use rest room or dining facilities required an escorted trip to the Captain’s quarters on the top deck! We were all glad when that job was completed! My next project was not much better. It had me locked in a clean room in an Army Map Service facility where I installed software that converted side looking radar imagery into ortho-photographs. Little wonder I went into marketing.

Carl doesn't know this, but the real reason I went to work for IDI was the promise of my very own graphics computer. You see, at Bunker Ramo, we had to sign up for time on the micro-programmed military computer. I was limited to one hour a day for debugging, and often had to spend the first 15-20 minutes figuring out what wiring had been “misplaced.” Prank or chance, I never knew; but I never regretted the move to IDI.

Rita was setting up the VT-11 at a trade show when she ran into a minor problem. The salesman didn't believe she knew how to fix the equipment and insisted on calling a field service representative. Rita had the problem solved before he arrived.

In the late 1970s, Jackie Potts, a respected graphics professional, responded to a call for papers from a Japanese computer graphics conference. She said she would like to submit a paper. The Japanese responded with a letter saying they were glad to hear from her but they couldn't accept the paper since they had no way of handling women as part of the conference delegation. We truly have come a long way!

The Opportunities Were There

Through computer graphics many of us were exposed to unique opportunities, met a lot of people and had a lot of fun. Elaine speaks of how interesting it was to be involved in the graphics standards work of 1977 and 1979 -- and of the lifelong friendships she made as a result of those activities. Tammy remembers being the first woman president in 1985 of an international mapping society, The American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing. As a result, she spent a year working in Washington D.C.

Jackie, an accomplished speaker, was always active in computer graphics associations and events. She chaired the Computer Graphics Art Exhibit at the 1976 National Computer Conference in New York City.

Having mostly come from applications backgrounds (with the exception of Tammy), my friends were not creators of graphics hardware but of applications software. This naturally led us into technical support and marketing. Incredible as it may seem, in those days hardware was actually released and sold sans software and one had to understand both the technologies and the applications requirements in order to sell the products. Ultimately, many of us went into sales. In an age when women were generally paid about 75 percent of what men were paid, commissioned sales became the great leveler -- you got paid based on what you sold, not what sex or color you were.

Being in sales had its own set of embarrassing situations. In those days, waiters had a tendency to give the check to the male customer, and they often felt obligated to pay it. Carl Machover loves to tell of the time (in the early ‘70s) when we were in Ontario, Canada with a customer, Bell Northern, and a prospective customer, Bechtel. To wind up our meetings, we went to an elegant French restaurant. As the only woman (with six men), I was given a menu without prices. At the end of the meal, Carl, as any sales executive would do, handed me, the junior person on the team, the check. The look on the waiter’s face makes us laugh to this day.

Tammy has another, although gender free, story about taking a group of 12 clients out to dinner at an elegant restaurant on Wall Street in San Francisco. A good time was had by all, enhanced by several bottles of very expensive wine. When Tammy went to pay the bill, the restaurant wouldn't take credit cards, and all the guests had to dig deep to help a very embarrassed Tammy come up with the cash.

Each Helped the Other

During the early days, there was a lot of woman-to-woman mentoring, in addition to friendships. It was in 1967 at Bunker Ramo that I first met another woman in computer graphics, Dorothy Ringer, who introduced me to SIGGRAPH and also gave me tips on how to manage as a working mother. Tammy was introduced to me by Cal Hefte, who founded Calma (an early digitizer and CAD/CAM company). For many years, Tammy and I were the only women selling computer graphics in the west. Even though we have occasionally been competitors, we have always been friends.

I especially remember meeting Jackie in the early ‘70s at a conference in Boulder where she addressed a large audience. I was very impressed and as a good sales person, took her out to dinner. By the end of the dinner we had launched a friendship that would last years. She was one of the most gracious and generous women I met in computer graphics. Jackie wrote several books, including an extensive bibliography of computer graphics literature. Mostly she did this writing between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. It was not at all unusual for us to schedule our telcons for 3 a.m.

Selling computer graphics in the ‘70s meant first selling the customer on the idea of using graphics, and then on using a specific vendor's product. In those days, customers were always intrigued by the games you could play. Lunar Lander on the VT-11 and Billiards on the IDIIOM (IDI Input-Output Machine) were always a big hit. On Saturday mornings in the office, my children were frequently entertained playing pool on the IDIIOM. (Carl’s note: the two I's in the name IDIIOM let us trademark the name. Coincidentally, we also had a version without the computer (a Varian 620i), and we called that the IDI Input-Output Terminal, or IDIIOT!).

Alyce Branum
South Shore Road
Piseco, NY 12139-0024

Tel: +1-518-548-0024
Fax: +1-518-548-2770

Carl Machover is President of Machover Associates Corporation, a consultancy providing services to computer graphics users, suppliers and investors. He has been interested and involved in the field of CG for many years, written numerous articles and conducted a number of seminars. Machover is Editor of the CAD/CAM Handbook (McGraw Hill, 1996) and serves on the editorial board of several publications.

Carl Machover
Machover Associates Corp.
152A Longview Avenue
White Plains, NY 10605

Tel: +1-914-949-3777
Fax: +1-914-949-3851

The copyright of articles and images printed remains with the author unless otherwise indicated.

Sherry commented that "in those days, working in computer graphics was like belonging to one big family; where else would competitors invite one another to their hospitality suites?" Knowing that everyone would lose if our competitive spirit caused the customer to rethink using graphics, our first objective was to make sure the customer didn't get cold feet. The second was to win the business for our company. One salesman called it the law of plenty -- if we worked together, business increased. With mentors like Ken Anderson, Dick Davison, Carl Machover, Dick Spann and Al Whetstone -- who were caring human beings first and businessmen second -- a spirit was established that not only built an industry, but many close friendships. And I would be remiss if I failed to mention the open friendships many of us formed with the wives of these men. Women such as BJ Anderson, Chris Davison, Wilma Machover and Marion Whetstone were great supporters of the women in computer graphics.

Where Are We Now?

And where are the good ole girls now? Tammy, who began in computer graphics in 1959 is the only one of my friends still active in the field. She is presently the Major Account Director for SDRC. Rita, who began her graphics work as the technical and marketing support lead for the price breaking VT-11 graphics product from Digital Equipment, is presently doing contract technical writing and pursuing other interests such as nursing home pet therapy using her trained dog. Elaine, who began her graphics work at MIT and Lincoln Labs in 1967, is now teaching at New Haven University and is, among other things, a figure skating judge. Sherry, in addition to her volunteer work with the Computer Graphics Pioneers, has become a very successful Southern California real estate salesperson. Jackie, who began her career with the Navy Department and later the Social Security Administration, was a writer and teacher until her death in an airplane crash in the spring of 1991. In addition to helping Carl out on the 25th celebration part of SIGGRAPH 98, I've started a second career in a resort community as a hospital chaplain and as the Director of the Adirondack Interfaith Development Center.

All in all, we agree that our work in computer graphics has given us lifelong friendships as well as unique and interesting career opportunities.