SHE-LOGY: This post is dear to me because it connects with my earlier professional background. Yes, I shamelessly admit that I kicked off my career as a software programmer working with what was probably one of the oldest programming languages — COBOL. So old that if you now check out an I.T. team that includes Mainframe applications, the expert programmers are most likely in the retirement age range, 60s and up. Ok, so I’m not that old. And it’s probably a very inaccurate generalization. While I did have a 70-year-old grandma in my team once, I do still know COBOL programmers that are younger than me.
So, I’m curious to test this theory I’ve heard: When you’re asked what a computer programmer typically looks like, what do you imagine? Is he the stereotypical eyeglass-wearing, socially-awkward, brilliant male nerd? Or perhaps a Steve Wozniak look-a-like?
Even with a programming background, I was taken by surprise when I discovered that the pioneers in this field are in fact women. And pretty, too! (if bringing that up somehow helps debunk the stereotype)
ADA LOVELACE (1815-1852)
“First Computer Algorithm”
Ada is a 19th-century mathematician, widely considered the first computer programmer for writing the first ever computer algorithm (at age 27!).
She became friends with Charles Babbage, who developed Difference Engine, the first ever mechanical computer (although his machines were never completed, they were considered the early models for a computer, thus earning him the title “father of the computer”). Babbage described Ada as: “that Enchantress (of Numbers) who has thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of Sciences and has grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects could have exerted over it”.
When asked to translate the notes of an Italian mathematician about Babbage’s next machine, Analytical Engine (a proposed mechanical general-purpose computer) , Ada added her own thoughts, which were more extensive and which included an algorithm that would teach the machine how to calculate a series of Bernoulli Numbers. Her thinking was so ahead of her time, her speculation of the potential of the machine to go beyond computing numbers and solving problems, to include words, pictures, and music, was nothing short of a prophecy. A century later, Babbage’s designs and Ada’s notes were read by people who built the first computer.
“[The Analytical Engine] might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine… Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”
Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli (1921-2006)
“First Computer Programmers”
Kay was one of the six original programmers, all women, of the ENIAC, the first general-purpose fully-electronic digital computer. In her time:
- Programming was stereotyped as women’s territory, expecting that it is a clerical function. The “real brain work” was assumed to be in the hardware side, hence this was given to male engineers.
- Female math majors, like Kay, were common, but most end up with a teaching job. Opportunities opened during WWII when the US Army hired female mathematicians to calculate bullet and missile trajectories.
- They started out as human “computers” (with low pay) and calculated ballistic trajectories -complex differential equations- by hand.
Out of the 80 women “computers”, the Army picked 6 to be the first programmers of its experimental project ENIAC. The “ENIAC girls” distinguished themselves by engaging in complex problem-solving tasks and by advising their male colleagues on hardware improvements.
Paired with Frances Spence, Kay was assigned to operate the Differential Analyzer, a huge analog machine of which there were only a few in the world. Fran and Kay led the teams of women who used this machine to calculate the ballistics equations.
After the war, Kay continued with the ENIAC to program equations for some of the world’s foremost mathematicians. Kay married Dr. John Mauchly who, together with J. Presper Eckert, invented the UNIVAC computers (first major commercial computers), and Kay worked with John on program designs and techniques for many years.
GRACE HOPPER (1906-1992)
“First Compiler and English Programming Codes”
Grace worked with the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, then with Remington Rand, where she oversaw programming for the UNIVAC computer.
She invented the first compiler for a computer programming language (a compiler renders worded instructions into code that can be read by computers). Her pioneering ideas led to the development of compiler-based programming languages and popularized the use of (English) words to write codes, instead of numbers or machine codes. This became the precursor of COBOL, one of the most universal programming language.
She is dubbed “Queen of Software”. The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) is a series of conferences designed to bring the research and career interests of women in computing to the forefront. It is the world’s largest gathering of women in computing.
Despite these pioneer women, there has been a reported drop in the number of women in computer science since the 80’s. In 2013, only 26% of the computing workforce were female. This interesting article When Women Stopped Coding explored how we have developed the narrative that computers are for boys, and therefore raised our girls to believe that computer science is not feminine.
SHE-LOGY is a blog project open to everyone who is interested to celebrate women this whole month of March. If you’re reading this, I extend that invitation to you to contribute post/s about the women you’d like to honor. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for reading this.