Women in Symbols

Maritza Gallegos

Until recently, women have gone unnamed in many of their historical contributions, which is visible in this archive. Most of the historical materials we can reference here to learn about early computing have been signed by men, with little evidence of the women behind them. For example, a majority of the letters in this archive have been written by a secretary, whose initials only appear at the end of the letter, such as in the picture to the right, where FMV has signed the letter and NB has written it up.

A letter subscript (FMV:nb) above the cc line detailing those involved in its writing
Nanny B.'s initials on one of Frank Verzuh's letters.

However, internal documents sometimes display a portion of the work women performed in computing. In the case of the choices made for which symbols computers would use, this archive demonstrates that women were heavily involved. In a memo submitted to Laura by Edna Tamm Verzuh, there is a page of symbols which appear to await her commentary. This is precedented by the file following this memo, received by Frank Verzuh on November 29, 1956, in which there are comments on the symbols requested by Edna herself, which are marked by both her first name on the sheet and her initials, ETV, in the bottom right-hand corner, as well as comments by Nanny, marked also by her first name and her initials, NB, on the bottom left-hand corner.

Edna Tamm Verzuh is one of Frank Verzuh’s secretaries as well as his wife, and Nanny B. is also likely Frank Verzuh’s secretary, seeing as the secretary subscript on most of Frank Verzuh’s outgoing correspondence is nb. Laura is mentioned only by her first name, but the archive provides evidence that her last name is in fact Hill. She is likely one of Philip Morse’s secretaries based on the subscript LWH on many of his letters and a letter within the archive to her from him, where he gives her some instructions while he is away. This is one example of the many tasks secretaries completed which diverged from the tasks we typically associate with them, and portrays how secretaries were and are far more than typists and organizers.

After the memo was received by Laura Hill, final comments were sent to Frank Verzuh in a note requesting the agreed upon new symbols. The initials on the bottom of this note are too ambiguous to say with certainty who sent it, but Edna Tamm Verzuh, Nanny B., and Laura Hill can certainly be ruled out.

Through these documents, we are able to view a piece of the role women played in the administrative details regarding computing, as well as some of the decision making and female labor behind the MIT Computation Center. Secretaries, which have often been credited only as typists, were often responsible for work relying on their judgement and decision making as well. This trend is present across scholarly disciplines, as shown in #ThanksForTyping, an NPR article discussing the female labor behind many scholarly publications. This article provides evidence of academics’ wives typing up manuscripts and doing research they were often unnamed for, being credited frequently as simple “my wife,” parallel to the secretary being recognized solely by initials in external communications.