Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Ada Lovelace Day: My Grandmother The Electronics Technician

"When I was a working lady, you could be a secretary or a schoolteacher. I was an electronics technician."

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, to commemorate and celebrate the contributions of women to science and technology. My theory is that much of our progress is so recent, we all know a pioneer or two. So I am celebrating my grandmother, the second woman in engineering at Tektronix, Inc.

My grandmother is a pretty unique individual. She started telling us dirty jokes when we were in elementary school. She was the first person I knew who had two piercings in each ear. And she insisted that all notes be addressed to Ms., not Mrs.

When my dad and uncles were kids, they played cards for their allowances in the back of the car on Sunday drives, and she cheated. Growing up in Northern Colorado, she held pussy-willow swallowing contests with the boys in church and didn't understand why she wasn't allowed to roller skate in the post office. So she's always been a bit on the wild side.

She worked at Tektronix for "25 years to the day," from the 1960 to 1985. She started out in production, which was almost all women. She began in "Small Parts," where they soldered the tiny components of oscilloscopes and vacuum tubes. She didn't say, but I could see where small hands might have been advantageous.

There was one woman, Connie Wilson, in the entire engineering department. One day Connie said she was looking for a technician, and told my grandmother to apply. So my grandmother became the second woman in engineering. She says she was never treated badly, more as an aunt to the young male engineers. She also remembers that Howard Vollum, one of the founders, always parked in the farthest lot and walked in, refusing a special parking space. She respected that gesture a lot.

Jean Auel
, the author of The Clan of the Cave Bear series, also worked at Tektronix then. She was a Mensa member, and brought Mensa into the company to run tests on the employees. Connie and Grandma took the test too, and scored in the top 10% of all Mensa members. Apparently the rest of the engineers were a little chagrined. She went to a few meetings, but they were 'wild' and she stopped going. Her definition of wild boggles my mind.

I can remember her scooping up rejected circuit boards on a tour of HP in Colorado Springs, and showing us the flaws. I also remember her showing us microscope pictures when we were little, and asking us to spot the differences between two boards.

Two of her sons are chemists and one is a pharmacist, so her love of the scientific and technological must have been contagious. I asked if she would be an engineer if she were a young woman today. It's a tough question, but she says she probably would, she has a knack for it.

For me, my grandmother is at once an inspiration and a reminder that keeping women from science and technology has kept some great minds from fulfilling their potential. Who knows how different the world would be if she and women like her had gotten more and better opportunities.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Census: Independence Rock. A Genealogy Perspective

In Niobrara County, Wyoming is Independence Rock. It is a crucial point along the Oregon Trail, "The Register of the Desert." Carved into the feldspar are thousands upon thousands of names of pioneers. From 1824 on, people stopped and carved their names into this rock, hoping that the relatives that came after would learn that they'd made it this far. One story tells of a woman who writes her name in 1852, after finding her husband's signature, left in 1849. The rock was a way to make yourself and your journey real. It was a way to celebrate how far you've come, and to send a message, full of optimism, to the people that would follow. The census is no different, and no less important.

It is easy to get caught up in the 'NOW' of the census - to worry about the immediate ramifications - redistricting, school funding, etc. But the census is much broader and more far-reaching. Genealogists are big census fans. The census is often the only thread pulling a story together, connecting a family, or revealing insights that have been lost in time.

Some of my family is listed in the 1860 Yamhill County Oregon Census.
You can see the story of the Oregon Trail here, too:
- the journey - Susan Gant, age 6, born "on the plains."
- the migration pattern - the Perkins family has a father born in New York, marries a mother born in Indiana, their first child is also born in Indiana, but the second is born in Iowa and the 3rd-5th are born in Oregon.
- the tragedy - John and Eliza Pennington are raising their two daughters (16 and 14), but also 8 Sportsman children, the littlest only age 1. Like Eliza, the 3 oldest Sportsman children were born in Missouri, so they may be her sibling's children.

This information is unique, it wouldn't be possible to derive most of it from bibles, tax rolls, or other data. Even the questions a particular census asks reflect the evolution of the country. In 1790, the enumeration differentiated between free whites and slaves, but only white men were grouped by age. In 1820, there was a separate free black distinction, and women's ages were tracked. In the 1930 census, people born in Mexico were separate from 'white' but they weren't in any previous census or in the 1940 census. Literacy, sanity, deafness, blindness, unemployment, age at first marriage have all been asked through the years. In the 1940 census, the next to be released, native or childhood language was asked.

The individual data for the census is held for 70 years, so that people can be protected from having their personal information released. This seems so quaint in the digital age, where so much information is known and revealed to the world. But there is a feeling of excitement around the release of each census. The last one released, the 1930, was the first to list my grandparents. The 1950 will be the first to list my parents.

The census is an Independence Rock. It says to future generations that we are here, we matter, we count. It says we have faith that, despite the complexities and challenges of our journey, in 2080, someone will be there. Someone who wants to know who we are.