Irma Wymann, born 31 January 1928 in Detroit, graduate of the Michigan Engineering School, was a developer of programmable computers. We celebrate this Detroit innovator with a Motown playlist with John on Crosscurrents, Monday 31 January.
“I grew up being told that I would never go to college, that I shouldn’t get my hopes up, that there would be no possibility of me doing that”
recalled Irma Wyman. But then she received a Regents Scholarship to the University of Michigan.
A professor once told Irma Wyman that women had no place in engineering and that no matter what she did, she would fail his class. She dropped the course, but not the profession, a friend recalled.
It took strength and determination to overcome discrimation from faculty and students, while working to earn living expenses. Only 2 of the approx. 7 women in her freshman class made it to graduation. Others either married or changed their major.
After being one of two women to graduate from the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering in 1949, Wyman forged a remarkable career in the computer industry and was eventually named Honeywell’s first female chief information officer.
“I felt that if I gave up, I would be rewarding all these people who said I couldn’t do it, I shouldn’t do it,” said Irma. Her grades were good enough to qualify her for Tau Beta Pi, the engineering honor society, but it was not yet open to women.
Upon graduation, Wyman faced a new challenge – finding a job in a field dominated by men.
During a visit to a Navy research facility, she found that they were using a prototype programmable computer to solve similar problems. It was the second programmable computer designed by Harvard. I “I just ate it up,” said Wyman.She was hooked.
After her work with the Harvard model, the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) hired her to work on several different prototypes around the country.
Her experience with computers led her to a position with a startup company in Boston, which was eventually acquired by Honeywell. This began a long career in management at Honeywell, leading to her eventual appointment as the company’s first woman Vice President.
Her experiences led her to establish the Irma M. Wyman Scholarship at the University of Michigan’s Center for the Education of Women. The scholarship supports women in engineering, computer science, and related fields. Irma remains deeply invested in the scholarship program, and enjoys a continuing relationship with the recipients.
Her retirement in 1990 from Honeywell spawned a new career – this time in a completely unrelated field. Wyman began a career as a deacon in the Minnesota Episcopal Church, eventually serving as Archdeacon for ten years.
She dedicated much of her time and money into helping young women succeed. She established the Irma M. Wyman Scholarship Fund at CEW+ (formerly the Center for the Education of Women) at U-M. More than two decades later, the fund has provided generous support to nearly 40 recipients in pursuit of degrees in engineering, computer science, and related fields at U-M.
“Since my life had been transformed by a scholarship, I knew exactly what the impact of that was on a person. And being female, I wanted to assist other women who were perhaps getting into the same kinds of challenges that I was,” she said.
“I graduated from the University of Michigan Engineering School with absolutely no computer training – because there wasn’t any,” said Wyman. “I hope that we recognize that our current engineering students are probably in the same situation. The work they’ll be doing in the future may not even exist yet – they’ll be part of making it exist.”
“It’s a fascinating world out there,” says Wyman. “If your gifts and talents fit into the engineering world, there’s a lot you can do. You can really help humanity and do good things for people.