Computer pioneer 1925-2018: Evelyn Berezin

In December 1971, a remarkable advertisement by a new company called Redactron appeared in the first issue of the feminist magazine Ms. Its headline proclaimed “The Death of the Dead-end Secretary” and the copy promised to liberate women from the tyranny of typing through Redactron’s revolutionary machine, the Data Secretary the world’s first electronic word processor. The ad offered Ms readers pads, buttons and stickers with the motto “Free the secretary” if they wrote to Redactron president, Ms .

Berezin, who has died aged 93, was an extraordinary female during the first three decades of an overwhelmingly male computer industry. Combining technical prowess with business acumen, she developed a pioneering airline reservation system, electronic stock price displays, betting terminals for horseracing and weapons targeting machines for the Pentagon.

Both as a technologist and a businesswoman, Berezin faced powerful sex discrimination. The most wounding case came in 1961. Working at the Teleregister company in Connecticut, she had developed a computerised market price system for the New York Stock Exchange and applied for a post as head of technology at the NYSE.

She was initially accepted but then called in by the exchange’s manager and told the board had overruled her appointment. “At the time I was probably one of the few people in the world who could do this job,” Berezin recalled in a long interview recorded in 2014 for California’s History Museum. “They [the board] said that, ‘You’re a woman, you’d have to be on the stock market floor from time to time and the language of the floor is not for a woman’s ears’. It was devastating.”

Evelyn Berezin was born on April 12 1925, in a Jewish community in New York’s East Bronx. Her furrier father and seamstress mother had emigrated from Russia a few years earlier.

As a girl she enjoyed reading science fiction stories and after the US entered the second world war she was able to study science and maths at Brooklyn Polytechnic thanks to a special dispensation that admitted a few women to the previously all-male institute. She went on to complete a physics degree at New York University and carry out research there on a fellowship from the US Atomic Energy Commission.

A key year in Berezin’s life was 1951. She married Israel Wilenitz, a chemical engineer, and joined the infant computing industry. Working at the Electronic Computer Corporation (Elecom) she quickly demonstrated her design skills, developing special-purpose systems including a rangefinder for the Department of Defence.

Berezin moved to Teleregister in 1958. One of her achievements there was an automated ticketing system for United Airlines, delivered in 1962. According to the Computer History Museum, its three linked processors served 60 cities across the US “with a one-second response time and no record of central system failures in over 11 years of operation”.

Berezin felt that, as a woman, she could not become a senior manager at an established computer company so she started her own Redactron in 1969, with venture capital funding, to fill what she saw as a gap in the market for word processors. Although IBM already sold word processing machines, these were very costly and limited in performance, working on electromechanical components. Berezin and colleagues came up with an entirely electronic machine, using some semiconductor chips bought from Intel and some of their own design.

The Data Secretary, priced at around $6,000, quickly became a commercial success thanks partly to an imaginative PR and advertising campaign and Redactron was soon employing more than 500 people. By 1976 the company found it hard to keep up with new competitors such as Wang. Berezin and her colleagues sold the company to Burroughs, a big computer manufacturer.

Berezin stayed on for four years as head of the Redactron division but did not enjoy the experience. “I wanted to see how a big company worked and I found it really shocking,” she recalled. “Their product planning group consisted entirely of marketing people.”

Fed up with the lack of technical input into product development and feeling that the acquisition had turned into a “disaster” for Redactron, Berezin resigned. She spent the rest of her career in the venture capital industry, investing in technology companies and serving on corporate boards.

Her husband died in 2003. They had no children.

Clive Cookson, Prosyscom Tech News

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