From carpets to computers: Women’s work and intellectual property law

Posted on Monday, February 11, 2019

A square tapestry woven with fine wires passing through tiny magnetic rings (core), and Ghazaleh Jerban.

Doctoral student Ghazaleh Jerban with a core memory plane, an early form of computer memory widely used until the mid-70s. Photo: G. Jerban.

By Linda Scales

Common law graduate student Ghazaleh Jerban clearly remembers the first time she saw the artifact that would become the focus of her fellowship research. “This big frame of intricately woven delicate wires,” as she describes it, at Ottawa’s Canada Science and Technology Museum stopped her in her tracks.

Jerban is one of two 2018 graduate student recipients of the new Ingenium-uOttawa Fellowship in Gender, Science and Technology. Both she and recipient Jennifer Thivierge, a PhD student in history, were awarded access to the Ingenium museum collections to research their public history projects and gain heritage and curatorial work experience. 

“I didn’t know what the piece was but at the moment I felt like it might be it,” said Jerban, a fourth-year PhD student, recalling the moment she discovered a “core memory plane” in the museum’s warehouse while investigating artifacts with her fellowship supervisor, Anna Adamek, director of the museum’s curatorial division. Sometimes called core memory or core, this early form of computer memory was widely used until the mid-1970s.

Invisible work of women

The significance of the artifact has everything to do with Jerban’s doctoral thesis, which examines the gender aspects of intellectual property laws related to women’s knowledge about textiles and agriculture.

“The issue of the protection of traditional knowledge is one area where creative, communal, collective and group activities of local and Indigenous women haven’t received the legal recognition they deserve in the current legal system,” Jerban says.

In addition to completing a bachelor’s and a master’s in law at the University of Tehran, Jerban was a graduate student fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, an international think tank located in Waterloo, Ontario, and in 2016, an intern for the United Nation’s World Intellectual Property Organization. For her doctoral thesis, she interviewed Iranian women about weaving Persian carpets, whose intricate construction closely resembles the fine wire and ring weave of core memory — also made by women.

“When I saw the core memory plane, the image of the carpet loom immediately popped into my head because of the resemblance,” recalls Jerban.

While researching women’s roles in the production of core memory during her fellowship, Jerban came across Hilda G. Carpenter, an African-American lab technician at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1953, Carpenter wove the core memory prototype — a critical achievement in the development of modern computers for which she was not credited until recent years. Since core memory planes couldn’t be successfully produced by machines, skilled female weavers were hired to make them by hand.

“From the fascinating marriage of colours and designs in Persian carpets to the intricately woven delicate wires in the core memory planes, I found one common theme, the invisible work of women,” said Jerban, comparing the results of her doctoral and fellowship research.

She will include her findings about core memory in her doctoral thesis.

Intellectual property and the woman question

“Raising the ‘woman question’ in the context of innovation and creativity is provocative,” Jerban says. “It challenges the apparent gender-neutral intellectual property laws by shedding light on their underlying assumptions about the role of women in science and technology."

She was describing a patent system that has been mostly designed to encourage and stimulate innovation, but not to credit forms of creativity and innovation labelled as more “feminine,” such as women’s traditional knowledge. By including the unheralded role of women in the creation of the computer’s core memory, Jerban will do much to advance her argument.

Three women weaving on a large carpet loom, shot from behind.

uOttawa’s Ghazaleh Jerban interviewed Iranian women about weaving Persian carpets as part of her doctoral research. Photo: G. Jerban


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