Honoring Evelyn Berezin
Computer scientist Evelyn Berezin passed away this past week at the age of 93. One of her greatest legacies is the invention of the first real word-processing system. Memorials have been hailing her for this accomplishment, as well as questioning why an inventor and businesswoman of her status, is not even more of a household name. Berezin was also responsible for developing an automated banking system and the first computer-based airline reservation system. In or out of the spotlight, however, both her life and career were worthy of admiration.
Born to Russian Jewish immigrants, Berezin grew up in the Bronx. Binging on her brother’s science fiction magazines, she developed an interest in physics and decided that she wanted to study it in college. Berezin explained that her parents “had never heard of [physics] and did not know that girls weren’t supposed to study it,” so they did nothing to dissuade her.
Berezin relied on her NY state exams to earn her a scholarship to a college in New York City. Her parents couldn’t afford to pay tuition, and she had no counselors to explain the possibility of scholarships to private schools. Admiring the fact that City College graduated more Nobel prize-winning scientists than any other college in the country, Berezin gravitated toward it, but since it only admitted men at the time, she applied to the comparable girls’ school Hunter College instead.
At Hunter, there weren’t a lot of opportunities in physics, so she declared an economics major. Most of her courses were in the liberal arts. “I learned a lot of poetry, so it was no loss,” Berezin said about her first year there. When it was declared that the United States would be entering World War II, the visiting physics professor at Hunter let her know that there would probably be jobs opening up at a research lab on 45th street. All of the assistants at the lab were boys who had graduated from elite all-boys NYC science-oriented high schools that Berezin didn’t even know existed, but the professor knew that many of them were likely to be drafted, so he suggested she go in for an interview.
When she went in for the interview, Berezin lied about her age—saying she was 18 when she was only 16—and got the job. Many other women were hired on during this period as well. During the war, college classes began to be offered almost exclusively at night and to be divided up by institution. “The universities had obviously made arrangements with each other, but I don't know how they arranged it. There was no other place to take the courses,” so Berezin worked during the day and took her liberal arts classes at Hunter, her math classes at Brooklyn Polytechnic, and her physics classes at NYU. “I was the only woman who had ever been at Brooklyn Poly, so I kept the flag flying for women, which I very much wanted to do.”
She eventually transferred to NYU and graduated from there with a degree in physics. One of her physics professors from NYU suggested she apply for an Atomic Energy Commission Fellowship for Graduate School and Berezin applied and was admitted into the program. After publishing some work on a topic in nuclear physics, she had difficulty finding her next job in physics, so she started asking about computers. She serendipitously landed a job working out in Brooklyn and began working on a system that would calculate the ranges for gun proving grounds.
As her career progressed, she began to look down different avenues. In 1960, she was offered a high-level position at the New York Stock Exchange managing their computer communication system, but then the job offer was abruptly revoked because “the stock market floor was not a place for women.”
She decided that she would have to found her own company to progress any further and she created a company called Redactron. Right from the start, she made it a point to get health insurance for all of her employees, even going so far as to make up an employee in order to reach the minimum floor to get company insurance. She considered designing a cash register system, but noting that 6% of the American workforce was employed in secretarial work, she decided instead to make an improved type-writing machine.
When the Data Secretary launched in 1971, it was marketed directly to women in the pages of Ms. Magazine. Enabling secretaries to step away from the monotony of endless retyping, and to shift their focus on getting to places where they “could call some of the shots,” the machines were praised as a revolution, and the company was acquired for a large amount.
Describing herself as “a loud woman that not everyone knew how to deal with” Berezin went on to become a venture capitalist and to sit on the boards of numerous companies. In 2011 she was inducted into the Women in Technology Hall of Fame in 2011 and into the Computer History Museum’s Hall of Fellows in 2015.