Senior Page: Harwich's Helen Gigley Recognized For Pioneering Computer Work

By: Debra Lawless

Helen Gigley of Harwich, center, with Dean Laura Haas, left, and chair of the Faculty James Allen at the recent UMass Amherst College of Information and Computer Sciences “Computing for the Common Good” award ceremony. COURTESY PHOTO

Perhaps you remember what computers looked like 50 years ago, or perhaps you have seen an old black and white movie showing a giant mainframe computer that takes up an entire air-conditioned room and spits out punch cards.

That’s what computers looked like when Helen Gigley of Harwich first got into the field. At that time computer science as a study didn’t even exist. So it was apt that last month Gigley, a pioneering woman in the field of information and computer science, was the first to receive a “Computing for the Common Good” award from UMass Amherst College of Information and Computer Sciences honoring her career.

The award was given as a part of the college’s Outstanding Achievement and Advocacy Awards banquet on April 5. Gigley was commended for “a groundbreaking career dedicated to education and public service, beginning in the 1960s and spanning over 50 years, with a focus on research in computational neurolinguistics.”

Gigley retired in 2010, and after a career in computer science, she has a Gmail account that she rarely looks at. She does not do social media. She does not have WiFi security devices in her home. She doesn’t talk to her children Kiri van Haaren in Lexington, Ky. and Jason P. Gigley in Wyoming or her three grandchildren using FaceTime. In fact, she uses a flip phone.

“If you sit at a computer for 40-some years you do not want to sit at a computer anymore,” she says. “You always had to be tethered to the computer. It’s an interference to my life.”

Gigley and her husband Paul, a real estate broker, moved to Cape Cod because they wanted to be near the ocean. These days Gigley volunteers in arenas that take her out into nature. She is a Mudflat Mania! Guide at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History. There, she leads groups out onto the Brewster flats to look for invertebrates—crabs, worms, jellyfish. Or you might find her digging in her vegetable and flower gardens. The Gigleys are planning a trip to Yosemite and often travel to visit their children.

A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, Gigley began her studies at the university there in the fields of mathematics and education.

“Initially, if you had a math background and could write equations, you could program computers,” she says. “It was always fun. Just fun.”

In the early 1960s, Gigley taught blind people to program at the University of Cincinnati Medical School. Her students were prolific in grade 1 Braille, which is a system of raised bumps that corresponds exactly to the letters of the alphabet. “It was phenomenal, just phenomenal,” she says. The blind students all had exceptional memories, and all were placed in professional jobs in the computer field.

After that, Gigley went on to teach at Greenfield High School where she developed one of the first high school computer science courses in the nation and taught coding to seniors. In 1967 she continued her own education at UMass where she earned her master’s degree in 1969 and her Ph.D. in 1982.

She spent a year in France on an NIH grant, then returned to the states to teach at the University of New Hampshire for four years until 1986. At that point she went into government work with the National Science Foundation. Later, as a civilian in the U.S. Navy, she worked as the first head of the Human Computer Interaction Laboratory at the Naval Research Laboratory. During the administration of President George W. Bush, she “helped write documents to support the president’s budget presentation to Congress for IT,” she says. “We did the groundwork for the IT field.”

Those years at the end of the 20thcentury and the beginning of the 21stwere the period when almost everyone began using email and personal computers. It was an exciting time in the field. Gigley and Paul lived in Arlington and for 15 years Gigley had the gift of being able to walk to work.

Then, when Gigley moved into the intelligence field, she commuted into Washington, D.C. There she worked for the National Virtual Translation Center, an office charged with translating documents for the government. The translators lived all around the country. The work “required cultural knowledge of the language. It’s quite exciting,” she says. “I was just doing technology transitions to aid the translators.”

Computers—what we do with them, and how we think of them—have come a long way since the early 1960s. Some changes aren’t benign. It seems that every week brings a story of a major hack or attempted hack into the databases of credit cards, medical records, voting records. Facebook has moved from a fun place to keep up with old friends to a controversial space used for disinformation and even for livestreaming mass shootings.

“It’s hair-raising what they’re doing,” Gigley says. “Nobody really thinks through the implications of the technology they introduced. No blocks are put in. If they can, they will.”

It seems likely that Gigley will be keeping her flip phone for the foreseeable future.