Today in History – February 12, 2010 – First computer engineer Barbie announced. Mattel had launched a competition for Barbie’s next career earlier in the year. The choices were: computer engineer, architect, environmentalist, news anchor and surgeon. I was part of a group that launched a viral campaign for the computer engineer and we won the popular vote. The kids vote was the newscaster. Mattel decided to launch both concepts on a tight time schedule so that they could announce them at the 2010 New York Toy Fair. I was part of the consultation team at the National Academy of Engineering that gave advice on clothes and accessories. I recommended a look that was “cool geek” or “sci fi”, dynamic with portable rather than desktop computers, and accessories that emphasized talking, communication and music. I said “can the coffee mug” envisioned in one of the early prototypes. I also recommended that the doll have an online game associated with it, possibly one that could be played or accessed through a mobile device. Mattel’s announcement said there would a special code [binary?] “to unlock exclusive game content on Barbie”. I’d love to help design those games.
Mattel’s Barbie site explains their approach and motivation for the project: “All the girls who imagine their futures through Barbie will learn that engineers — like girls — are free to explore infinite possibilities, limited only by their imagination,” says Nora Lin, President, Society of Women Engineers. “As a computer engineer, Barbie will show girls that women can turn their ideas into realities that have a direct and positive impact on people’s everyday lives in this exciting and rewarding career.” To create an authentic look, Barbie® designers worked closely with the Society of Women Engineers and the National Academy of Engineering to develop the wardrobe and accessories for Computer Engineer Barbie®. Wearing a binary code patterned tee and equipped with all the latest gadgets including a smart phone, Bluetooth headset, and laptop travel bag, Computer Engineer Barbie® is geek chic”. More can be found on Mattel’s fact sheet.
Ironically, Mattel’s announcement was the day before the anniversary of the first Barbie doll on the retail market: February 13, 1959. Barbie’s inventor, Ruth Handler, was inspired by seeing that her daughter, Barbie, and her girl friends enjoyed playing with adult female dolls, but most dolls at the time were baby dolls. Handler created 3D models of dolls that she thought would inspire her daughter’s dreams and took them to the ad executives at Mattel, Inc. Although Mattel was founded by Ruth Handler and her husband, Elliot, some years earlier in their garage, the “all male” committee rejected the idea as too expensive and without enough appeal in the market. Determined not to give up on the idea, Ruth Handler continued to further develop her product and went to Europe to gain fashion ideas and market her concept. Mattel soon appreciated the potential impact of this concept and changed their mind, debuting Barbie at the American Toy Fair in New York City in 1959. This new doll concept immediately set new sales records for Mattel (351,000 dolls is reported for the first year; sold at $3 each).
Feminist critics of Barbie were concerned about the anatomically distorted figure, pointing out that the doll reinforced sexist stereotypes of women. There even was a “Barbie Liberation Organization” (BLO). In 1992 Mattel actually included the line “Math is Hard” to one of their first talking Barbies. Some clever BLO hackers set up a website telling members how to hack into the Barbie and GI Joe voice boxes in a project called “Operation NewSpeak”. Some of the more adventurous returned hundreds of the hacked dolls to geographically diverse national toy stores in their original packaging. These ‘stereotype-changed” Barbies would scream “vengeance is mine” and “dead men tell no lies”. The GI Joes mused “let’s plan our dream wedding” or “want to go shopping?”. As a response to criticism Mattel introduced changes: The “Ken” doll was introduced, named after the Handler’s son. Barbie’s breasts were reduced to better represent the shape of actual young women. Different multicultural Barbie’s were also been introduced, along with career-oriented Barbies in the “I can be . . . ” series.
In spite of the criticism, the Barbie doll became an American icon and Mattel has tried to provide versions that reflect America’s changing society. Barbie’s clothes, professions and charitable endeavors have evolved over time. Yet, until February 12, 2010, there were no engineering Barbies. But that has now changed!
I must admit that I very much enjoyed my Barbies as a young girl. I think she inspired me to think about fashion and design. I designed my own clothes as a teenager and I used a sewing machine to make them. I do think the sewing machines and design patterns (perhaps in CAD today) are important tools in a design engineer’s tool box.
Recently, I actually bought a Barbie knock-off at the airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, called the Fulla doll, named after a flower in the Levant. The New York Times called it a “Bestseller in Mideast: Barbie With a Prayer Mat”. The article says that Fulla has become widely popular because the toymaker, NewBoy Design in Syria, seriously considered culturally values in Fulla’s design. Only the one with the black abaya (below left) was sold in Saudi Arabia though, possibly because other colors are not worn for outdoor wear.
I’m glad that a major toy company is waking up to the fact that girls and women love computing. In fact, the history of computing actually owes much to contributions of talented women. Ada Byron Lovelace is credited as the first person to envision programming with her statement about a mechanical calculator: “The analytical engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves”. The Ada programing language was named after her. Six of the ENIAC programmers were women at the University of Pennsylvania during World War II who had been calculating ballistics trajectories by hand. Admiral Grace Hopper, inventor of the first computer compiler, coined the term “computer bug” and is the namesake for the Grace Hopper Conference – Celebration of Women in Computing.
Readers interested women in computing should check out Lucinda Sanders’ blog on the founding of the National Center for Women in Information Technology on May 18, 2004. Or visit the Engineering Pathway’s educational resources on the ENIAC, history of computing, Ada Lovelace and women in information technology. For curricular resources, visit the Computer Science Education, Information Science Education, Information Technology Education, Computer Engineering Education of Software Engineering Education community sites. Or check out our new Broadening Participation in Computing community.