Women’s contributions to science, technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) have often been overlooked. But their contributions are not to be underestimated.
Ada Lovelace, the ENIAC women and Grace Hopper are examples of women who have had a significant influence on the development of today’s computer programming languages.
Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) – The first computer programmer
The daughter of Lord Byron and Anne Isabella Milbanke, Ada Lovelace, revealed a talent for numbers and language at an early age.
At 17, she met and became friends with Charles Babbage, a mathematician and inventor of the difference machine – an ancestor of the computer that could perform mathematical calculations. Through him, she began studying advanced mathematics at London University.
Asked to translate an article about Babbage’s new analytical engine which was designed for more complex calculations, Lovelace not only did what was required but also added her own thoughts and ideas on the invention. Her notes described how codes could be created for the device to handle letters and symbols along with numbers. She also devised a method for the machine to repeat a series of instructions, the looping process used by computer programmes today.
Lovelace’s contributions to computer science remained a well-kept secret for more than 100 years but her notes were finally republished in 1953 in a book by B.V. Bowden, Faster than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines.
ENIAC (1946) – The refrigerator ladies
In 1943, two men, John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, along with the United States Army, began designing and engineering a system called the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), part of a secret World War II project. They explored the possibility of an electronic calculator made from wiring and vacuum tubes and detailed their plans in a paper entitled The Use of High-Speed Vacuum Tube Devices for Calculation. To complete their project, they needed math majors to programme the machine.
Six mathematicians, all women, were chosen. They learned to program without programming languages or tools, because none existed. They used only logical diagrams and the work they did calculating ballistic trajectories was extremely complex. When the project was completed, ENIAC could run missile trajectories in seconds.
When ENIAC was unveiled to the press and the public in 1946, the six women – Kay McNulty, Betty Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Frances Bilas and Ruth Lichterman – remained invisible and did not receive recognition for their work during their lifetime.
Grace Hopper (1906-1992) – First Lady of software
“Amazing Grace” for some, the “First Lady of Software” for others, US Navy Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper was a leading figure in computer science and programming from the 1940s to the 1980s.
In 1943, she joined the US Navy Reserve, enlisting in the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). She was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard where she was part of the Mark I computer programing staff. The Mark I was a huge electromechanical computer that was used to compute data for scientists working on the Manhattan Project and also computed mathematical tables, as inspired by Charles Babbage’s analytical engine.
Programmers can thank Hopper for making their life and work easier. When she began her career, all computer programmes were written in numerical codes by people with a mathematical background. To make computer coding more accessible, she devised a human-friendly programming language that used English words that were then translated into machine codes. She met with much resistance but persisted in her endeavour, and in 1952, the first “compiler” was born.
In the late 1950s, Hopper was part of the team that developed COBOL, the Common Business-Oriented Language used by businesses and governments.
Hopper is said to have coined and helped popularize the terms “bug” and “de-bugging”, after a moth was removed from inside her computer.
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