Proving Ground by Kathy Kleiman

“The untold story of the six women who in programmed the world’s first modern computer”

When Kathy Kleiman came across photographs of the earliest computers, she saw women posed in the pictures. Told that they were just “refrigerator models”, posed there just to make the machine look good, she wasn’t convinced. Something about them looked professional and engaged, as though they were familiar with the machines, so he decided to find out who they were and why they were there. She discovered six women whose work programming the first computer has been forgotten, ignored and sidelined until now.

A little while back I came across the term “girl hours”, in this book, which isn’t really used anymore. In the early days of computers, when they took up an entire room and took hours to process things, women were often engaged in calculating and programming, so the amount of time a computer would take to do something could be measured in girl hours. Since then, I’ve wondered about who these women are (and why there’s this myth that women can’t do maths?) so when this book came up I really wanted to read it.

The US, during and after WW2, was engaged in a technology race, to keep pace with other countries military tech, and the six women in this book worked with a machine called ENIAC, researching and figuring out how to program the world’s first general purpose programmable and all electronic computer. They were recruited by the military into a top secret program at the Moore School, one of the most respected engineering institutions, and would work on artillery equations. It wasn’t an easy road, they were often hazed and given a hard time, but they also made enduring friendships with each other and were doing very important work that women were usually not allowed to do.

I really liked Kay, Fran, Betty, Marlyn, Ruth and Jean. I loved their stories and the different paths they took to end up on the team. Their individual personalities were able to shine in this book, and as I mentioned about, their relationships with each other interested me. The author explains the time period and the historical back drop very well in ways that make sure the book is never dry. And I think she also does this well with all of the technological and technical aspects too. This book could have been a real slog and bogged down with details in the wrong hands, but the author neatly avoids this.

I really liked this book. To be critical, I think there are moments that the author is keen to set the scene for us and maybe over writes, creates too much of a novelistic scene. I can see that she’s trying to create a cinematic moment for the reader, but it can feel slightly over done. These moments are few and far between though.

I really liked this one. It’s a very interesting subject, and the author has done her research. I love seeing these women brought to light and loved learning more about them.

Read It If: you love stories about women in history or learning about past technology. A very interesting read and never gets bogged down in tech jargon.

Thank you to HBG Canada for the copy of this book for review.

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