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New Media Futures: The Rise of Women in the Digital Arts captures the spirit of women working in digital media arts and education in the Midwest. These pioneers made essential contributions to the international technological revolution, helping to catalyze what we now think of as the age of digital and social media. The story explores seminal events that took place at the University of Illinois and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1980s and 1990s, in a fertile environment combining social f eminist change, artistic energy, and technological innovation. While women artists in Chicago, marginalized in traditional venues, built a network of independent galleries and exhibit spaces to house and highlight their work, interdisciplinary Renaissance Teams at the University of Illinois devel-oped advanced academic computing communities that created a bridge to the humanities and forged new partnerships between the artist and the scientific environment. This historic merging of art and technology in the Midwest, with women at its heart, encompassed digital games, PHSColograms, virtual reality, supercomputing graphics, and Internet browser-based art, as well as graphic tools for medical research and diagnosis and other technical uses. Behind this revolution lay a history of social change, artistic innovation, women’s civic leadership, and breakthroughs in science and technology.


The Rosies, 1946

From the Jean Jennings Bartik Computing Museum

Jean Jennings Bartik (left) and Frances “Fran” Bilas Spence (right) operating the ENIAC’s main control at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering, 1946. Copyright ©2002 Jean Jennings Bartik Computing Museum, Northwest Missouri State University. Used with permission. At the onset of the Cold War, the first computer program was installed on the ENIAC for Oppenheimer’s team to compute complex calculations for their nuclear weapons research, which created an arms race with other nations, including the former USSR. This collaborative scientific effort brought two classified projects together in advanced mathematical computing and atomic bomb research. Six brilliant young women—Kay McNulty, Betty Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Fran Bilas, and Ruth Lictherman—secretly programmed the ENIAC. These selected self-taught women initially studied elaborate block diagrams and collaborated on developing the first success-ful ENIAC program that would change the world. Their collaborative achievements paved the way for computer software and were at the forefront of technological innovation. Superiors informed these female workers that their efforts would be a great contribution to the country. Betty Jennings and Betty Snyder developed the demonstration trajectory program that was unveiled to the press on February 1, 1946. Invited journalists, whose experience of what they saw was tightly controlled by the government, excluded the women’s contributions to this significant achievement from press release announcements and celebrations.


Fifth Solvay International Conference on Electrons and Photons, which includes Marie Curie– the first woman to win a Nobel Prize

From Wikimedia Commons

Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and the only woman to win a Nobel Prize twice, and the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two scientific fields. Curie was additionally the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris. Famous group photo of the scientific community from the October 1927 Fifth Solvay International Conference on Electrons and Photons, which includes Marie Curie as the only recognized woman scientist in the community, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and others. They debated the newly formulated quantum theory, which contributed to the underground formation of the Manhattan Project and development of the atomic bomb that eventually led Martyl and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to create the Doomsday Clock. Pictured in the front row, Marie Curie was one of seventeen out of twenty-nine attendees to become Nobel Prize winners, in two separate scientific disciplines. Photo by Benjamin Couprie, Institut International de Physique de Solvay. Front: Irving Langmuir, Max Planck, Marie Curie, Hendrik Lorentz, Albert Einstein, Paul Langevin, Charles-Eugène Guye, C. T. R. Wilson, Owen Richardson. Middle: Peter Debye, Martin Knudsen, William Lawrence Bragg, Hendrik Anthony Kramers, Paul Dirac, Arthur Compton, Louis de Broglie, Max Born, Niels Bohr. Back: Auguste Piccard, Émile Henriot, Paul Ehrenfest, Édouard Herzen, Théophile de Donder, Erwin Schrödinger, J. E. Verschaffelt, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, Ralph Fowler, Léon Brillouin


The Rosies, 1946

From the Jean Jennings Bartik Computing Museum

Only known picture of all of the ENIAC female programmers, except for Betty Snyder [Holberton] (Betty took the picture), circa 1946. Left to right: Herman Goldstein, Frances “Fran” Bilas Spence, Homer Spence, Jim Cummings, Marlyn Wescoff, John Mauchly, Ruth Lichterman, Betty “Jean” Jennings [Bartik], Kathleen McNulty [Mauchly]. Light explained, “Photographers and journalists were invited on several occasions to come in and see what exactly was the ENIAC, what could it do, who was involved, and archival records show that women were photographed but these photographs never appeared in articles written by the journalists or never were published in newspapers and magazines. So many of the men—engineers—received publicity while the female computers and programmers did not” (Erickson 2010). Only recently has this lack of recognition been rectified and women’s vital contributions to the war recognized. Some women working in the Midwest had to wait decades to receive international recognition for important contributions to the war. In 1997, many of these women were inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame, harkening back to earlier achievements made by the famous Ada Lovelace, who is now recognized as the world’s first programmer for creating the first programming language based on Jacquard looming for Charles Babbage’s difference engine in 1833. Such innovations made by both women and men ushered in a modern era of software-driven, large-frame computer hardware, though often women were relegated to the sidelines.


Later in 1986, DeFanti, Brown, and Bruce McCormick published a pivotal NSF report, Visualization in Scientific Computing, with the cover image of an astrophysical jet by Dr. Michael Norman and Cox. This seminal report recognized the importance of visualization, outlined technical challenges of high-performance computing, and called for a new level of government support for scientific visualization. Such synergistic efforts established the University of Illinois as a leader in the emergent field of data visualization. The report called for an international response from the scientific community and created a watershed in visualization research. 

Cover of the influential 1987 National Science Foundation special report that delineated the major visualization challenges in the twentieth century. Coauthored by Bruce McCormick, Tom DeFanti, and Maxine Brown. Cover art visualization by Donna J. Cox and Michael Norman.


Courtesy of Donna J. Cox


“Science by Satellite: Televisualization” 1989 event on stage in Boston Computer Museum auditorium.

Courtesy of NCSA, University of Illinois, 1989

“Our objective was to provide a collaborative space where people physically located across the country could access the same resources and could discuss policy and collaborate on coauthoring documents effectively. The National Workplace was a proof-ofconcept to explore how to think about the future of the Internet and its usability for serious collaboration. The “spaces” concept was futuristic and, to our knowledge, we were the only group designing with those ideas at that time.”


-Colleen Bushell Three screen projections in the background showing images being broadcast in real time over satellite from Illinois.


This was the first demo showing the “look and feel” of the future of Internet teleconferencing so common today. This vision of doing science and data visualization interactively and remotely was ahead of its time.


During the late twentieth century, the Internet and browser technologies were among the most socially transformative technologies, and the University of Illinois was at the epicenter of development. As an NSF-funded center, NCSA had become one of the leaders in developing network technologies for the NSFNet, a general-purpose backbone network built upon protocols specified by the Department of Defense. NSFNet’s primary mission was to provide network access to the broad academic community for research and education. Like scientific visualization, networking software became another important development spawned from original NSF academic supercomputing centers.


NCSA was a national hub that supported advanced networking, supercomputing, and scientific visualization. Women artists were gravitating to NCSA due to the unparalleled opportunities it afforded and its unique, state-of-the art collaborative environment.

By the 1990s, the NCSA Telnet network protocol was gaining global fame. Among those attracted to NCSA was Ping Fu. A native of China, Fu was working at Bell Labs in Naperville, Illinois, when she accepted a technical position at NCSA. As Fu described in her autobiography Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds (2012), “I was instantly attracted to the Renaissance Experimental Lab, which contained cutting-edge computer graphics machines. Displayed on the wall were visualizations of five thousand years of global climate change, and a poster of Tin Toy, the first computer-animated short film to win an Oscar. I was interested in converging art and science through the use of technology, and that was clearly being done here.”

The iconic NSFNet image that was the precursor to the Internet of today and still requested for use of the University of Illinois. The network data was first visualized by Donna J. Cox and Robert Patterson in 1991 and again in 1993. This version is from 1993.


Courtesy of Donna J. Cox and Bob Patterson, NCSA, University of Illinois.


The Purple Moon team, led by founder Brenda Laurel, innovated a form of “emotional navigation” for the interface to the Rockett games based on research from play-testing with girls and boys conducted with Cheskin Research. Screenshot from 1998.

Courtesy of Brenda Laurel.

During this expanded CAVE research, Brenda Laurel, another Renaissance figure from the Midwest, was also doing important VR research at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada, with Rachel Strickland that investigated differing ways that women naturally explore space. This research led Laurel to originate the “women in games” movement, combined with her past work at Atari as the company’s first woman employee—who put a bow on Pac-Man to create Ms. Pac-Man. She created her own company, Purple Moon, during the technology boom under the Interval Research umbrella. Her new company focused on computer games for girls that emphasized imagination, exploration, and a rehearsal for trying on different points of view. Purple Moon fans were also social on the web before social media was invented. The popular website was an early example of a successful online games community produced for girls. Laurel’s PhD thesis was published as the classic text Computers as Theatre (1991).

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