The Most Important Women Programmers In History

The Most Important Women Programmers In History

by Gary Oldwood on 2 August 2016 · 2247 views

If you ever wondered how programming began as a profession, perhaps you’d be surprised to learn that in the beginning, it was predominantly a female profession.

In this article we’ll go through some of the greatest female personalities that contributed to the creation of programming as we know it today.

Ada Lovelace and the first computer

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, is known by many as the woman who wrote the first program. She was born in 1815 in London, and was the only legitimate child of the famous poet Lord Byron.

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From a very young age, her mother showed her the path of mathematics, in fear that she would follow Lord Byron’s philosophical path instead. She believed that mathematics was the "cure" for any "poetic illness" she bequeathed by her father. Apparently she didn’t particularly like him.

At that time, it was relatively rare for a woman to study mathematics, but this didn’t discourage her.

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You might be wondering, of course, how she contributed to programming. How does she belong to programmers, since there were no computers yet at that time? Indeed, computers didn’t exist, but there were many efforts to create a machine that could do complex computations. One of the visionaries of such a machine was the mathematician and computer pioneer Charles Babbage.

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Babbage, after several failed or unfinished works, designed a very complex machine named "Analytical Engine". The design described a mechanical general-purpose computer, which was an important step in the history of computing.

The Analytical Engine is considered to be the ancestor of the first computers. It was designed for use with punched cards, in order to program the machine and enter data. For this reason, Babbage is considered by many as the "father of the computer". Due to the limited resources of that time, this machine was never built; its cost was so big that Babbage was never able to complete his work.

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However, Ada Lovelace was extremely influenced by the potential of such a machine. She began translating an Italian article by the mathematician Luigi Menabrea, which analyzed the functionality of the Analytical Engine. In the translated article, she added her own notes, which exceeded in size the original article. In these notes she included a program she created, with which the Analytical Engine could compute a sequence of the Bernoulli numbers. This is considered by many as the first computer program, and Lovelace is considered as the first programmer.

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Additionally, in the notes she stated that Babbage’s computer could have more uses in the future. She argued that such a machine could be used for other things, not related to mathematics.

Although she is attributed the title of the first programmer, recent studies show that Babbage himself had written programs for the Analytical Engine long before Lovelace. However, this does not degrade her contribution. Ada Lovelace was the first to envision the real potential of such a computer.

Lovelace died at the young age of 36 years old. Many years later, in 1980, her contribution was officially recognized and the US Department of Defense presented a programming language, which was named Ada in her honor.

Human Computers

Going further back in time, we see that the word computer was used to describe one who makes mathematical calculations.

The term was already known since the early 17th century, long before computers were created. Thus, "computer" was called anyone whose profession was to perform mathematical operations.

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This profession was useful in various sciences, such as astronomy. The work included many groups of people who were used to work together in order to calculate complex mathematical operations. The problem that each group was asked to solve, was divided into sub-problems that required several mathematical operations. The combination of individual results produced the final calculation.

Generally, the “computer” profession was not considered significant and the payment for it was quite low. For most people it was a temporary job until they found something better.

However, the employers preferred mostly women, because they were cheaper to hire than men. So this profession was mainly a “female” job.

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During World War II, "human computers" played a very important role. At that time in particular, their majority were women, due to the absence of men.

ENIAC and the first women programmers

Somewhere in the 40s, a secret military program in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania began. The program included the construction of the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer).

ENIAC was the first reprogrammable general-purpose computer and was designed by John Mauchly and Presper Eckert. Its purpose was to perform complex calculations for various military operations. Until then, these calculations were made by "human computers" and it was a very time consuming process.

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After ENIAC was built, programmers had to be found, who would be operating the machine. For this purpose, six women were selected from the group of "human computers" that was performing calculations which would later be given to ENIAC. These were Kathleen McNulty, Jean Jennings Bartik, Frances Elizabeth Holberton, Marlyn Wescoff, Frances Bilas Spence, and Ruth Lichterman. These women were the main programmers of the machine for as long as it was active.

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At first, these six women programmers had to find a way to feed ENIAC with the data. That is, without being trained to do so, and without having a manual on how to do such a job. To accomplish this, they studied ENIAC’s structure, so as to understand the way it works and how to operate it. Their work was similar to that of a modern developer, with one key difference: instead of the programming languages that we learn nowadays, those programmers were using 6000 switches and cables to give commands to the computer.

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When ENIAC was officially announced in 1946, its programmers were not mentioned anywhere. Their contribution to the successful operation didn’t receive any recognition at that time- hardware drew everyone’s attention, while software and programming were considered routine chores.

Today, these six women are known as the first programmers and have been honored with various awards.

Grace Hopper, the “Queen of Software”

Grace Murray Brewster Hopper is perhaps one of the most famous programmers. She was born in New York in 1906 and studied mathematics and physics. At the age of 37, she volunteered at a research department in the Navy.

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At that time, Harvard was developing another general-purpose computer. The computer was called Mark I and was used for military purposes towards the war’s end. The first three developers of Mark I was Richard Milton Bloch, the Robert Campbell, and Grace Hopper.

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After the war, Hopper turned down a full professorship at Vassar College (from which she was rejected admittance in the past, due to a low score in Latin), and continued to work in the Navy. Moreover, she continued her research at Harvard and participated in subsequent editions of the Mark I.

In one of them, Mark II, a problem had appeared at some point, responsible for which was a bug that was stuck in a mechanism. When the bug was removed, Grace jokingly used the term "debugging", which is now widely used to describe the process of identifying and fixing problems in a computer program. Of course, "debugging" at that time meant that you also had to crawl into the machine to see what is broken or not working well, unlike today, where you just sit on your chair and simply pull your hair to figure it out.

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In 1949, Hopper began working for Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation. Along with her were some programmers who worked for the ENIAC as well.

Up until that time, computers were used only by universities only for scientific purposes. Then, UNIVAC came to existence, which was the first computer to be used for industrial purposes. Hopper worked as a chief engineer for the development of UNIVAC and was constantly trying to find ways to accelerate the creation of programs. Moreover, she believed that programs should be written in plain English and not in machine language.

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For this reason, in 1952 she developed the first compiler for a computer named A-0. A compiler is a program that converts code into machine language. This was a very important achievement, and it didn’t take long for the first programming languages to appear afterwards (MATH-MATIC and FLOW-MATIC). Hopper was in charge of the department of their creation.

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Grace Hopper retired from the Navy at the age of 60. However, soon after her retirement, she was called again to active duty for a short time, and after another six months of service, the Navy announced that it would need her services indefinitely. So, she served until the age of 80, and became the oldest active Navy officer at that time.

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Her contribution in the field of computers is so important, that in fact got her several titles, such as the "Queen of Software" and "Mother of COBOL".

Here you can watch an interview that she gave in the last years of her life.

Other Women Programmers

Adele Goldberg

Adele Goldberg was born in 1945 and worked with Alan Kay on the development of the Smalltalk-80 object-oriented programming language. Although the specific language was not the first object-oriented programming language, it is now considered a standard for most OOP languages. Apart from Smalltalk, Kay and Goldberg were the forefathers of the graphical interface as we know it today.

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Moreover, in the beginning of the 70s, they envisioned a world where people in the future would use laptops for their daily activities. The name given to these computers was "Dynabook" and its design was not much different from the current tablet.

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In 1979, Goldberg presented to Steve Jobs the Smalltalk language and its graphical interface. This later influenced the design of Apple’s Macintosh.

Radia Perlman

Radia Perlman was born in 1951 and played a very important role in the development and evolution of the internet.

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In 1985, the ethernet was a technology that was limited to only a few hundred nodes located in the same building. With the STP protocol (Spanning Tree Protocol) designed by Perlman, the ethernet was extended to support hundreds of thousands of nodes in a fairly large area.

She also helped in many other fields of networking, and that’s why she was given the name "Mother of the internet", although she doesn’t like this title at all.

Women programmers today

Many other women, programmers or not, contributed to the development of computers. But today, female programmers tend to become extinct.

As we mentioned, after the end of World War II, the profession of programmers was considered easy. The idea that programming is of small importance remained for years, and the female population would still occupy most of these positions. So, until 1960, the most common professions of educated women were teachers, secretaries, and programmers.

From then on, things started to change for women programmers. In the 80s their share had already declined significantly- that was the time that the first personal computers made their appearance. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates became widely popular, and so did IT degrees.

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Thus, there was a rapid growth in the field, and the need for more developers had significantly increased. Advertisements encouraged the male population to start programming, and companies were promoting their computers as tools that teens could use to play video games. This increased men's interest, and simultaneously decreased the interest of women.

So, the impression that the personal computer is a "game" for boys, was established. The percentage of women involved in programming began to fall sharply, and women programmers started disappearing.

Most people, when they heard about programming, they would imagine a nerdy teen with glasses sitting all day in front of the computer screen. Thus, the stereotype of a "computer geek" was spread, and exists until today.

And so, that’s how only women programmers represent only a small fraction of the total software engineers, giving the impression that the profession was traditionally male-dominated.

However, efforts are being made by various organizations to attract women in this profession, and hopefully, more women will pick up the art of programming again.

[Sources: WikipediaNPR, Quora]

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