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Badass computer scientist grandma

Anita at the Naval Research Lab in 1974.
Photo via Anita Faujour

I work as a social media intern at Global Citizen and thus a lot of what I think about is how I can maximize engagement as well as what means I can use to accomplish this. Now, of course, I would not be able to do any of this without today’s advanced technology.

A lot of people from my generation (I’m in my early 20s) have to suffer through phone calls from their grandparents who are not tech-savvy. I, on the other hand, go through the complete opposite– I call my grandmother any time I have a computer problem. Say what now? Yes, my grandparents know more about computers and the Internet than I do. My grandmother, Anita Holmgren, even gave me tips on how to hone and perfect my social media skills. She’s also on every social platform (I’m friends with her on Facebook).

Every grandmother has awesome stories to share with their grandkids, and mine has a ton. I thought this particular one was worth sharing, especially in this day and age where technology has transformed from a complement to the work force to a necessity.

So, here’s a story of how computers and the Internet came to be, from a woman who's worked with them since their inception.

Joline: Hey Mamie Anita (that’s what I call her to make her feel young and it’s the French version of grandmother) I’m curious, what was the first computer like?! How big was it? Could you paint me a picture?

Anita: The first computer was the Babbage Difference Engine in the 1800s and later there was the Turing Machine from the mid-1930s, which we'll see at Bletchley Park this summer (we’re visiting London for her 75th birthday!). I know I'm your grandmother, but I did not work on the first computer!

Joline: Haha, I didn’t know computers were that old! What was it like working on one of the earliest computers in history?

Anita: Well, the computers were installed on raised floors, in large air conditioned rooms, such as IBM's 1401 in the early '60s and the 709 and 7090 in the mid-sixties. The programming was in assembly language (very primitive language close to the hardware level of the machine), and later in early higher-level languages. No laptops. You wrote the program down on a coding sheet. An operator typed the instructions and they were converted to punched cards, which were manually inserted into a card reader and the output was on large sprocketed sheets of paper. So the turnaround time for results could be a few hours, or you could sign up for "machine time" and actually have the entire computer room to yourself.

What the computer room looked like; IBM 1401, early 1960s. 

Joline: Okay, I’ll pretend like I followed.. So what was it like being one of the only women working in the industry?

Anita: Interesting. When I was hired by Bell Labs in the early sixties, they said they were experimenting in hiring a woman! I was in meetings in government buildings in DC where the only women's restroom was pitch black (due to burned out light bulbs -- and obviously not used very often).

All the politically incorrect questions were asked. In the case of the Naval Research Lab (NRL), I was working as a WAE (While Actually Employed), so there were no benefits, no vacation and no sick leave. And when I inquired about benefits the answer was, "Doesn't your husband have benefits?"

Joline: That’s terrible, I’m glad to see women have a lot more rights now. What was the work at the Naval Research Lab like?

Anita: When I worked at NRL they installed their first minicomputer. Still quite large, but it didn't require its own room and environment. The operating system was on a huge, unwieldy roll of paper tape that took very long to be loaded into the computer. I remember dealing with the roll of punched paper tape all over the floor. NRL is one of the Navy research labs. At the time-mid-1970s- there were seven Navy labs across the country and the government wanted to connect them. The idea of the ARPANET (precursor to the Internet) was proposed and because the management didn't see the ARPANET as anything they needed to spend time on, they put me (a lowly WAE) in charge! That was my start with getting an IMP (computer node to the ARPANET) installed and my beginning with the Internet.  

The environment was still what I described- coding sheets, punched cards, and paper output, and we were doing a study to see if a glass screen could replace the paper!

Joline: Tell me more about the project that they thought was deemed to fail.

Anita: The idea was to connect the seven Navy labs across the country using the new ARPANET technology. As a representative from one of the labs, I flew to bimonthly meetings at the various labs to work on the project. The government hired an outside consultant to make the final proposal. On one of my flights I happened to be sitting next to a computer science graduate student. We struck up a conversation and he gave me his course syllabus. That got me started on studying about the new emerging ARPANET protocols. When the government consultant delivered their final proposal, I threw a monkey wrench into the works saying, “Why aren’t we using the standard government protocols instead of inventing our own?”

Joline: Wow, you’re a badass grandma!  So proud you’re mine!

Anita: By the next decade, heavy PCs were being lugged around at airports and I was at MITRE involved with connecting the World Wide Military Command and Control System to the evolving Internet.

Joline: And I complain about lugging around my laptop... Looking back now, how do you feel about the growth of the computer industry?

Anita: The growth of the computer industry has changed our lives and changed the world. In some cases for the better and in other cases in frightening ways. ISIS, for example, relies on social media for recruiting and most recently posted a hit list of American soldiers (names taken from a government computer). It was bad enough that the Internet became a vehicle for the dissemination of porn (haha, oh Mamie), I don't think anyone expected that it would become a major support system for terrorism.

But on the lighter side, having books instantly available electronically, seeing and sending photos around the world with ease, instant research, global shopping- it's all wonderful and amazing. And soon I'll have it on my wrist with the Apple watch.

Joline: That’s very interesting to see how technology has been used in both positive and negative ways. Hey, while I have you, why don’t you share with readers what you like to do in your spare time?

Anita: Enjoy the fruits of technology.

Joline: And Pilates! Okay, switching tracks here- so, you lived in Washington D.C. for quite a while where you were involved with the civil rights movement. What was that like?

Anita: There was no social media to create spontaneous rallies-no Arab Springs- but instead rallies were well planned in advance via newspapers, radio, TV.  

Joline: And how has protesting/campaigning/advocating changed since then? What are your thoughts?

Anita: Nowadays everyone has the role and opportunity to be a journalist. Everyone can tweet, or broadcast (see the Meerkat app) and cause a movement. And maybe with such an inept government these days, this is a good thing.

Joline: What do you see for the future of computers and the Internet? (Say maybe in 20 years- what’s your guess?)

Anita: The "Internet of Things" has been something talked about for a while and is now coming to fruition. In the future, everything will be connected to the Internet. You will manage your home via the internet (lights, locks, heat), your car will take you to work, you will handle all your affairs online (finances, shopping, taxes). A lot of this is happening already, but it will become more pervasive and paper will be a rarity. And while everything will be available electronically (and for the most part, I'm good with that) they will have to pry the Sunday New York Times out of my cold dead hands.

Joline: Haha, I’m sure.Thanks for sharing your awesome story!

In the Global North (and even now in the Global South), social media, technology, computers, and the Internet have become our main means of communicating. This industry has transformed campaigning and advocacy platforms. We are now able to advocate at a much faster speed and branch out in ways we couldn’t before. So, as a global citizen, with a click of a button you can now advocate for so many wonderful causes- in no small part because of my badass grandma!