This Day in Jewish History

1925: A Natural Computer Scientist Is Born (But She's a Woman)

Evelyn Berezin invented the first word processor, and designed the first digital booking system for airlines – which never crashed, not once.

Evelyn Berezin posing for a photo at Redactron, the company she co-founded.

April 12, 1925 is the birthday of computer scientist and entrepreneur Evelyn Berezin, the rare woman who in the field’s early days, was involved in both the development and the financial ends of the business.

Berezin got involved in designing computers in 1951, and a little over a decade later, she developed the first digital reservations system for an airline. In 1969, she established her own company, Redactron, and went up against IBM in the production and marketing of one of America’s first office word-processing machines.  

Evelyn Berezin was born on April 12, 1925, to parents who both had emigrated from the Russian empire to New York in 1905. Her father, a fur cutter, had not gotten beyond heder, primary religious school, while her mother, who worked as a seamstress, had not attended school at all.

Evelyn and her two older brothers grew up in the Inwood-Sherman section of the East Bronx. She attended Public School 6, and later Christopher Columbus High School, a new school, that as an adult, she remembered with great enthusiasm for its innovation and excellence.

In 1941, at age 15, she entered Hunter College, where she began studying economics. When the U.S. entered World War II, however, she began working full-time during the day at a printing company, and did her studies at nights, changing her major to physics, and taking courses at New York University and Brooklyn Polytechnic, in addition to Hunter.  

Wanting to go on to graduate school in physics, she was offered a scholarship from the Atomic Energy Commission that allowed her to continue at NYU, where she focused on studying cosmic rays.

It was during this period that she met Israel Wilenitz, who had grown up in London in a Zionist family that emigrated to pre-state Palestine. Israel had come to New York after his studies as a chemical engineer. He met and married Evelyn in 1951, and brought her back to what was now the State of Israel some time the following year.

They didn’t remain long, though, and when they returned to New York, Evelyn went back to Electronic Computer Corporation, where she had begun working shortly before making aliyah. At ECC, she was a one-woman logic-design department, and she worked on computers for both military and commercial clients.

A @&*(! woman on the !&*()# floor?!

In 1957, after the parent company of ECC went under, Berezin moved to Teleregister, where she designed the first airline-reservations system, for United Airlines, in 1962. The system was unusually advanced, employing semiconductors, and years later, she was informed that over the 11 years it was in operation, it never failed once.

In 1960, Berezin was offered a senior position at the New York Stock Exchange to design a state-of-the-art communications system. The exchange’s board of directors, however, turned her down at the last minute, however, over concern that as a woman who would occasionally have to go onto the trading floor, she might be exposed to obscene language, a situation they couldn’t permit to happen.

After several years as a systems manager at a company called Digittronics, Berezin, convinced that as a woman she would never reach a senior executive position, joined together with three male partners to establish Redactron in 1969. (In fact, a Businessweek survey in 1976 showed that of the 100 senior women in business in the United States, only one – Berezin – worked in a technology company.) They called their digital office word processor the Data Secretary, and over the next three years, managed to raise $9 million for their startup, which by 1975, had $20 million in sales, and employed 500. The following year, they sold the company to Burroughs, which however failed to capitalize on the potential of the Data Secretary in offices.

In the years that followed, Evelyn Berezin worked as a consultant and started her own venture-capital firm, Greenhouse Management, to invest in technology startups. She has served on the boards of a number of firms, and has also been involved as a philanthropist in improving technology education.

After 51 years of marriage, Israel Wilentz died. Evelyn turns 91 today.