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.

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