Future Tense

Tech-Bro Culture Was Written in the Code

How computing pioneers at Dartmouth in the 1960s gave rise to the macho tech culture we see today.

A Dartmouth College student works on an upgraded GE 635 time-sharing system.
A Dartmouth College student works on the upgraded GE 635 time-sharing system at the Kiewit Computation Center.
Dartmouth College Library

Adapted from A People’s History of Computing in the United States by Joy Lisi Rankin. Out now from Harvard University Press.

In the 1960s, Dartmouth College became ground zero for the coming explosion in American computing after college mathematics professors John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz developed a new programming language that was relatively easy to learn: Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, or BASIC. Kemeny and Kurtz wanted to a create a novice-friendly computing entry point that would attract young talent for the college’s newly developed Dartmouth Time-Sharing System, a network of teletype terminals located across New England colleges and high schools that connected, via telephone lines, to a mainframe General Electric computer at Dartmouth. Undergraduates at the college programmed the DTSS and took most of the responsibility for maintaining it, giving the students an unprecedented opportunity to set the tone of the network. Computing access was still rare at the time, and the DTSS not only represented the first large-scale time-sharing system of its kind, but also a model for later computing networks throughout the 1970s and ’80s. BASIC, too, would remain a fixture of programming forever after.

Kemeny and Kurtz believed that computing offered a tremendous opportunity for all students—not just those in the sciences and engineering—and the college’s dedication to accessible computing set its network apart from similar computing networks during the 1960s. Its founders referred to participation on the network as computing “citizenship.” But that citizenship, and the systems that followed Dartmouth’s lead across the country, ultimately mirrored the college’s demographics: predominantly male, white, and affluent. And although Kemeny and Kurtz intended computing as an equalizer for their students, the Dartmouth network’s computing “citizens” created novel and lasting associations among computing, masculinity, and status.

For one, there was the location Dartmouth officials chose for a new building to house its burgeoning computing operations. In 1966, the college unveiled the Kiewit Computation Center (named for alumnus and construction magnate Peter Kiewit, who contributed $500,000 to the project) to much fanfare, including not one, but two articles in the New York Times. The building enjoyed a central location, adjacent to the library, that bridged the north side of the grassy green quad at the heart of the campus with the top of Webster Avenue—a location better known on campus as “Fraternity Row.”

In the 1960s, social life at Dartmouth revolved around its fraternities. This placed the new Computation Center in a perfect location for socializing, entertaining dates visiting from the Seven Sisters Colleges, or popping in on the way back from a football game. Dartmouth undergraduates also received free computing time, unlike users at most other universities who had to pay for computer time on top of tuition. The accessibility, along with the ease of BASIC, engendered tremendous student creativity and set the Kiewit computing culture. This geographic and financial accessibility—and specifically, who took advantage of the access—set the culture at Kiewit. “Dartmouth College is a campus gone crazy for computers,” declared the lede of the first New York Times article about Kiewit. One student ran a program named “Xmas” to print out his Christmas cards. Another young man called on a template program to print this letter to send home: “Dear Mom, I’m so busy studying for finals that I don’t have time to write myself. … Send money.” These Dartmouth students were enthusiastic and eager to interact with this new technology that remained, for much of the American population, as remote as the moon.

To be sure, this accessibility and vision for computing “citizens” fostered a certain spirit of shared responsibility. The center’s near-monthly newsletter, Kiewit Comments, often provided updates on the state of the college’s limited computing storage. Kiewit staff cajoled users to be good computing citizens and actively “un-save” unnecessary programs to free up precious memory for other users, and to contribute their programs to Dartmouth’s computing-program library for the benefit of computing novices: “We need the support of all users … May we encourage you to submit these ‘goodies.’ ” But the leadership’s reasons for fostering such a community benefited a particular kind of computing citizen.

Kemeny, the mathematics professor who became president of the college in 1970, believed that computing would become crucial to good American citizenship. He emphasized that the time-sharing network was a worthwhile investment for Dartmouth men who, in order to become the future business, government, military, or scientific leaders he thought they should be destined to become, would have to learn to be computer-savvy. Kemeny’s specific belief that computing would become essential to the health of American democracy proved prescient. But his vision of a collegewide responsibility to encourage personal computing glossed over the fact that Dartmouth’s future leaders were a homogeneous bunch of white men: no women, few minorities. (The college didn’t admit women as undergraduates until 1972.) Here was a world of personal and social computing at odds with the social justice movements of the 1960s—and at odds with Kemeny’s own vision for the civic power of computing.

This showed in how computing was taught on campus and across the network. As mathematics professors, Kemeny and Kurtz required that any student enrolled in a math course in his first year (roughly 75 percent of all Dartmouth freshmen) had to produce several math-related programs in BASIC to pass the course. When local high schools began to join the Dartmouth network (all that was required was a teletype and a telephone line), the first campuses that requested and received access to the network also happened to mirror Dartmouth’s skewed demographics. Seven of the first nine schools that connected to the Dartmouth network were private and all-male. Moreover, the boys at the private schools received teletype access for 72 hours per week, compared with only 40 hours per week for public school students. As Dartmouth’s time-sharing system grew in influence, the effect advantaged a homogeneous group of network users: male students, predominantly white and well-to-do, who could create programs in BASIC.

Kemeny, Kurtz, and the students themselves reinforced this group dynamic by cultivating a decidedly noncerebral breed of masculine computing centered on games. During the 1960s, Dartmouth’s membership in the Ivy League revolved around its football team. Games generated camaraderie and school spirit, with abundant displays of Dartmouth’s unofficial athletic mascot, “the Indian.” In 1962, computing students under the tutelage of Kemeny and Kurtz named one of the college’s homegrown compilers the problematic acronym SCALP. The Kiewit Center brought the same rough-and-tumble masculine bonding into the teletype room again with sport- and war-oriented computer games, including at least three versions of computer football games (FTBALL, FOOTBALL, and GRIDIRON). In fact, Dartmouth distinguished itself from most other universities by actively encouraging student gaming and recreation on the network.

Displays of traditional masculinity came out in other ways too. For example, many Dartmouth men recalled that they often brought dates to Kiewit before or after football games to demonstrate their computing skills. Then-underclassman Francis Marzoni used the time-sharing system to create a huge printout proclaiming, “HEY GIRL I MISS YOU” that he sent to his long-distance girlfriend. Another planned to woo his Winter Carnival date by composing a romantic text for her and “making this BASIC program hold it in memory for the proper moment when [she] would see this printout and be overwhelmed by [my] computer prowess.”

Women, however, weren’t entirely absent from the Kiewit computing scene. Though Dartmouth only admitted male undergraduates at the time, there were women working in key roles at the Computation Center. They epitomized the range of possibilities for women in professional computing during the 1960s: application programmers, operators, technical librarians, computing-program coordinators, and secretaries. Janet Price joined as an applications programmer in 1968. Price not only served as an expert on FORTRAN, a programming language, but also lectured on it and developed programs for the Dartmouth network for college faculty. Ruth Bogart joined as a social sciences programmer, supporting faculty and research projects in those fields with her computing expertise. Diane Hills and Diane Mather joined the staff during the summer of 1969, jointly responsible for applications programming, the DARTCAT library, and other user services.

Still, the employment arrivals and departures of Kiewit women were often discussed in terms of their husbands or children, whereas the wives or children of the Kiewit men were rarely introduced. When editor Lois Woodard left Kiewit, the newsletter announced, “Lois and her husband, Mike, leave Dartmouth on June 17. … Mike will begin training in General Electric’s Marketing Management Program.” When “Mrs. Susie Merrow” joined the staff, the newsletter added, “Susie and her husband, Ed, who is a senior at Dartmouth majoring in government, make their home here in Hanover.” The women of Kiewit were elevated as wives and mothers above their professional computing contributions. And, like their counterparts elsewhere in the then-burgeoning American computing industry of the 1960s and ’70s, many were gradually pushed out as the field they had long found employment in (albeit if underpaid and undervalued) professionalized—a process intertwined with the creation of a particularly masculine computing identity epitomized at Dartmouth.

Meanwhile, Kiewit men enjoyed the growing power associated with their employment and status. Although Kemeny and Kurtz may have envisioned computing as an equalizer among their students, the students created a hierarchy for themselves based on their familiarity with the system behind the scenes. They mocked the novice students who thought of the teletypes themselves as the “computers.” They played practical jokes in which they would randomly substitute strings of meaningless text into the output of someone’s laboriously written program. They delighted in the arcane details of their programming expertise. These Computation Center student employees had cultivated status—and created a now-all-too-familiar form of masculinity—for themselves by understanding the obscure machine language required to communicate with the mainframe computers, by exerting power over their peers, and by flaunting their expertise.

Even after Dartmouth began admitting women as undergraduates, very few sought employment at Kiewit. That first, formative decade of the Dartmouth network had created a masculine computing culture for users and experts alike that was hard to break. It was also a computing culture that spread throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and beyond—through its own network, through the national recommendations made via the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee (on which Kurtz and Kemeny served), and above all, through the BASIC programming language.

Indeed, as then-popular manufacturers Hewlett-Packard and Digital Equipment Corporation started marketing “Dartmouth-like” computing time-sharing systems, a Kiewit Center report boasted that “it seems safe to conclude that perhaps millions of students in the United States … have learned computing Dartmouth style.”

Looking back at that time, it also seems safe to conclude “computing Dartmouth style” was a decidedly masculine endeavor.

A People’s History of Computing in the United States book cover