Retiring Archdeacon Wyman helped launch modern computer age

Episcopal News Service. December 18, 2008 [121808-03]

Joe Bjordal

The Venerable Dr. Irma M. Wyman, 81, will retire on December 31 as Archdeacon for the Diaconate in the Diocese of Minnesota after ten years of service. It's the conclusion of her second career. In her first she played a pivotal role in the development of the modern computer industry and helped elevate the role of women in American enterprise.

Wyman and five others were the first women accepted into the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan in 1945. Despite the fact that she was encouraged to leave the university to "make room for the men" who were returning from World War II, she persevered and graduated in 1949 as one of only two women in her class. She then became involved with several start-up companies who were experimenting with the development of "automatic computers" as one of the new field's pioneer programmers.

She eventually joined a small firm in Boston that was purchased jointly by Raytheon Corp. and Honeywell, Inc. and became Datamatic Corp. There she was involved in the development of the Honeywell Datamatic 1000, first introduced in 1957. Wyman said that only seven were manufactured because the technology was changing so fast that the machines would soon be obsolete. She said the Datamatic 1000 cost "several million dollars," filled a 6,000 square-foot room and required a cooling system that used 1000 gallons of water per minute.

Despite the size and cost of early computers, Wyman recalls discussions with colleagues in the late 1950s about the "ideal computer."

"We knew exactly where we wanted to go with all of this, but the technology did not yet exist to get us there," she said. "What we envisioned in those early days was this: a computer that could sit on your desk, solve problems in milliseconds, communicate with the user in his or her own language—not programming code—and cost less than $1,000."

From 1953 to 1980 Wyman was involved in nearly every aspect of Honeywell's computer business, headquartered in Boston, including design, manufacturing, maintenance, patents and sales. She once personally demonstrated the Datamatic 1000 to officials of the United States Treasury. They bought it.

Wyman said that every time it was obvious that she should be promoted, she was moved "laterally" to a new job because, as one company official told her, "Men will not work for women."

In the early 1970s, things began to change for women in the workplace. Honeywell was a large government contractor and, according to Wyman, government officials began to ask, "Why you don't have any women in senior management?"

Wyman moved to Honeywell's corporate office in Minneapolis in 1980 to manage the company's internal use of computers. In 1982 she was appointed the first female vice president and served as chief information officer until her retirement in 1990.

Nation Master, an online encyclopedia and database lists her as one of 15 "famous women in computing."

Wyman said she discovered the Episcopal Church during her days in New England and began to feel a call to the diaconate in the early 1970s. She said that the vocational diaconate, as we know it today, had just been "renewed and restored" in those years and many priests and bishops simply did not understand it. She recalls going to visit the bishop of New Hampshire at that time, expressing her desire to pursue the diaconate, only to be told that "there will be no deacons in New Hampshire—male or female."

When she moved to Minneapolis, she discovered that the Diocese of Minnesota, in 1980, had the second largest group of vocational deacons in the Episcopal Church. She paid a visit to then-bishop Robert Marshall Anderson, who encouraged her in her pursuit and even approved a training plan that allowed Wyman to continue the heavy workload and frequent travel of a corporate vice president.

Three months after her retirement from Honeywell in 1990, Anderson ordained her to the diaconate. Bishop James L. Jelinek appointed her the first Archdeacon for the Diaconate in the history of the Diocese of Minnesota in 1998.

Among her accomplishments as archdeacon—service for which she says her time in the corporate world prepared her well—she cites the establishment of a new training and formation program for deacons. She said the program underscores the fact that deacons "are not just home-trained priests, but bring a different calling and different gifts to the church." The program moved beyond just academic study to include practical training in advocacy and social justice.

"The job of a deacon," said Wyman, "is to bring the needs, concerns and hopes of the world to the church. We are the bridge between the church and the world."

Asked to comment on the current state of the Episcopal Church, including the controversies that have caused some to leave, Wyman replied simply "I have always been troubled by people who seem to know exactly what God wants."