I’ve worked my entire career in a field dominated by men. I haven’t really thought that much about it. My work is fun. The guys are – for the most part – an accepting and friendly bunch. Some of my best friends work in high tech. I even met my husband among them. So, reading The Technologists by Mathew Pearl was a bit of an eye-opener for me.
I love history. And I love technology. I even love the history of technology because it is so recent that I can remember what I was doing when the first computer hit the market or the Internet became a thing. But Pearl’s book goes back further. Back to when the idea of technology was new, to the first graduating class at MIT, which had exactly one female student. To everyone in the book – the boyish club of primary characters, the Luddites who were fighting against technological change, the old-school Harvard types across the river deeply entrenched in a godly view of learning, Boston society – this one female student is a pariah.
What sort of woman would go to college – let alone a disreputable upstart college — which is what MIT was at this time — studying this frightening and unwelcome thing called technology? She had her own lab. She wasn’t allowed to attend classes with the men and had to study in private. She had to shun society and live in a near-slum because a woman living alone and going to college then was the modern equivalent of a ‘crack ho.’ She was brilliant and dedicated, though, and didn’t let any of this stop her. The character is based on a real woman. And, once they got to know her, the main-characters — a group of friends on a mission to save the city — made her one of their own. In fact, in real life the woman this character is based on met her husband among one of these characters.
Sometimes the writing is stilted. Sometimes it overreaches. But it’s still a damn good read. I read it weeks ago and it still creeps into my day sometimes and reminds me that, but for that brave woman and many like her, my life — all of our lives, really — might be very different. It captures a moment in time that would be easy to forget. That little glimpse when MIT was an upstart. When science was a passing notion. When Harvard was religious. When the Back Bay was a swamp.
I thoroughly enjoyed going there. Drop it on your Kindle and let me know what you think.