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Personal Computing Before the Invention of Personal Computers

April 9, 2013

Joy Rankin (History of Science/History of Medicine) is writing her dissertation on the earliest form of personal computing, which began before the invention of the personal computer itself.

Before there were smart phones, tablets or laptops, there were desktop personal computers, and before that there were huge mainframe computers, occupying entire rooms at a select few universities and laboratories. Joy argues that students and educators created personal computing as a set of behaviors, practices, and techniques on academic time-sharing systems during the 1960s and 1970s, independent of the hardware available to them.

Time-sharing was a form of computing in which multiple users simultaneously shared the resources of one central computer,” Joy explains. “Users ran programs and received results via teletypewriter terminals (similar to typewriters) connected to the computer with telephone lines.” They sat at a keyboard, typing and responding to text-only messages – no images, no animation, no colorful displays, no sound. But these early users developed into communities of computing enthusiasts.

Technology has become central to our ideas of community and family, to our work and our identities, and of course, to education. My dissertation draws attention to the important but little studied area of the history of technology in education. I aim to present the long and rich history of computing in the classroom,” she says.

One goal of my project is to recover the deep and multifaceted history of time-sharing on its own terms. Students and educators were among the earliest users, and they developed complex systems around time-sharing. In this light, the classroom becomes a rich site of inquiry, where students, educators, parents, terminals, telephone lines, and hopes and fears about education and computing all meet.”

While preparing for her qualifying exam in the history of computing, Joy looked for social histories of computing, but found very few. She also discovered that “time-sharing, which flourished as a form of computing for two decades, provided individuals with the experience of individualized, interactive computing, yet very little had been written about it. Studying academic time-sharing provides a lens by which to understand early digital experiences.”

The archives she uses for her research are at Dartmouth College, the University of Illinois, the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Historical Society, and the Charles Babbage Institute (CBI) Center for the History of Information Technology. She typically spends a week at a time at an archive, photographing documents and artifacts. One trip can yield thousands of pictures – and several months of reading, additional research, and writing. Joy also analyzes government documents and oral history interviews. She plans to conduct additional interviews with project developers and users involved in early personal computing.

Her research has been funded by two external fellowships. She is currently the 2012-13 IEEE Life Members’ Fellow in Electrical History and was recently awarded the 2013-14 Adelle and Erwin Tomash Fellowship in the History of Information Technology from the CBI at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. This year she is an exchange scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where one of her dissertation committee members, historian David Mindell, teaches. Her adviser is Daniel J. Kevles; other committee members are Bill Rankin (no relation) and Glenda Gilmore.

Joy earned her undergraduate degree from Dartmouth with a double major in history and mathematics. Her senior research project in mathematics, written for a course on cryptography, centered on the mysterious Voynich Manuscript, a centuries-old cipher that resides in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. For her major paper in history, she analyzed Thomas Powers’ argument in his Heisenberg’s War: The Secret History of the German Bomb, “that physicist Werner Heisenberg actively sabotaged the Nazi efforts to develop an atomic bomb during World War II. Pursuing a doctoral degree in the history of science enabled me to cultivate my intertwined interests.”

Her passion for archival research was sparked in England as part of Dartmouth’s Foreign Study Program in History. “Every Tuesday, I journeyed from London to Girton College, Cambridge, and immersed myself in letters and journals penned 125 years prior. I investigated the experiences of the inaugural students at Girton, the first women’s college at Cambridge. Sitting in the Girton Archives every week, I appreciated the pleasure and satisfaction of working with primary sources. Over the course of my independent research, I also realized that my discoveries had significantly deviated from what I initially expected to find. I was hooked!”

Between college and graduate school, Joy worked for several companies and universities, including EF Education, Englishtown, LEARN NC at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Duke University, to launch academic programs. As part of a project involving online English as a Second Language (ESL) education, she taught herself how to program a computer, and also analyzed ESL from the perspectives of students and teachers “in order to enhance the overall language learning experience.” Her dissertation similarly focuses on computer users and usage, rather than hardware.

Joy and her husband Scott have a one-year-old daughter, Lucy Eleanor Rankin. Scott works in Boston, where he is the vice president of technology for Corporate Reimbursement Services. When she has time, Joy enjoys yoga, Zumba, walking, and bicycling. She also loves baking and dabbles in glass-blowing and glass-fusing. “But most of my time outside of work is spent with my family,” she says.