Let's not whitewash tech history

A story about Arvid Nelsen, a librarian and researcher at Southern Methodist University, and a member of the IEEE Computer Society,

By Samuel Greengard

History books are filled with all sorts of inaccuracies, distortions and oversights. For instance, the film Hidden Figures brought to light the work of three African-American women, Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, who were instrumental in sending astronaut John Glenn into orbit. Their brilliance in mathematics and computing helped NASA launch a series of missions that eventually led to American astronauts setting foot on the moon.

Yet, these three women were barely known before the book and film were released. And, unfortunately, this type of oversight and whitewashing of history is all too common. Minorities and women have played a much larger role in science than most people realize.

As a result, Arvid Nelsen, a librarian and researcher at Southern Methodist University, and a member of the IEEE Computer Society, has taken a closer look at this topic. In the organization's magazine, Annals, he sets out to correct the historical record. Using unconventional sources to reconstruct history, including Ebony magazine, Nelson, who is white, examines the role of African-Americans and other minorities in science and tech.

"It must be remembered … that a lack of archival sources does not mean that persons of color did not exist or contribute to technological developments—simply that the institutions that collected materials either consciously or unconsciously preserved only or substantially the records of white people, most often white men," he points out.

Nelson launched his research in 2008 and continues to explore the topic. "I believe and hope that when the truth about the role and contributions of persons of color in computing becomes more broadly known, it will have a positive impact on the attitudes of the industry and young people of color," Nelson says.

To be sure, we need to look beyond books, movies and other media to obtain a more accurate view of technology's past. What's more, at a time when businesses are desperate for tech talent, it's important to recognize the contributions of everyone—and encourage young people to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

"I think that I was like many people who have perhaps unconsciously accepted the prevailing narrative that computing was mostly white and male," Nelson concludes.