Bloomberg Businessweek

We Were Here First

How the once female-inclusive tech industry turned into Brotopia
Fran Allen, IBM, 2005

Lena Söderberg started out as just another Playboy centerfold. The 21-year-old Swedish model left her native Stockholm for Chicago because, as she would later say, she’d been swept up in “America fever.” In November 1972, Playboy returned her enthusiasm by featuring her under the name Lenna Sjööblom, in its signature spread. If Söderberg had followed the path of her predecessors, her image would have been briefly famous before gathering dust under the beds of teenage boys. But that particular photo of Lena would not fade into obscurity. Instead, her face would become as famous and recognizable as Mona Lisa’s—at least to everyone studying computer science.

In engineering circles, some refer to Lena as “the first lady of the internet.” Others see her as the industry’s original sin, the first step in Silicon Valley’s exclusion of women. Both views stem from an event that took place in 1973 at a University of Southern California computer lab, where a team of researchers was trying to turn physical photographs into digital bits. Their work would serve as a precursor to the JPEG, a widely used compression standard that allows large image files to be efficiently transferred between devices. The USC team needed to test their algorithms on suitable photos, and their search for the ideal test photo led them to Lena.

Katherine Johnson, NASA, 1966

According to William Pratt, the lab’s co-founder, the group chose Lena’s portrait from a copy of Playboy that a student had brought into the lab. Pratt, now 80, tells me he saw nothing out of the ordinary about having a soft porn magazine in a university computer lab in 1973. “I said, ‘There are some pretty nice-looking pictures in there,’” he says. “And the grad students picked the one that was in the centerfold.” Lena’s spread, which featured the model wearing boots, a boa, a feathered hat, and nothing else, was attractive from a technical perspective because the photo included, according to Pratt, “lots of high-frequency detail that is difficult to code.”

Over the course of several years, Pratt’s team amassed a library of digital

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