A Short History of Women in Technology

If you think all computer professionals are men think again. Mr. Connelly tells us about some well-known women in computer annals.

One of the many public debates in Australia at the moment is on the question of women in the computing industry. For many people, the computer industry and computers in general are seen to be a domain where big boys play with toys. Of course, in a society and economy based on the division of labor this may very well be true, but that is another article. The heads of all the large companies are men: Bill Gates and Steve Jobs to name but two. However, the same must be said of almost all companies and institutions in modern society. The computer industry does not exist in a vacuum; as much as anything else in our world, it is a plaything of larger forces.

What of the role of women in computing? From the earliest days of computing to the writing of the Standard Template Library, women have played an active and leading role in computer science. The following examples should quickly prove this statement to be true.

Ada Lovelace

We can start with a question: who was the U.S. Army's programming language named after? Ada Lovelace, daughter of the English poet Lord Byron. (Rather ungallantly, Byron left Ada and her mother, Anne Isabella Milburke, when Ada was one year of age, to seek glory in Greece, where he succumbed to a fever instead of leading a stirring charge—history can be quite unforgiving.) A brilliant mathematician, she worked on the analytic engine with Charles Babbage, devising a method of programming based on the cards used on a Jaquard loom—a type of input some of us older people can remember from standardized testing in our school days, or from the Simpsons cartoon, where Apu wrote a tic-tac-toe game in his university days (before becoming the fifth Beatle).

With their combined algebraic skills, the pair set off to the racetrack to apply logic to horse racing in an attempt to win enough money to build their machine. This effort resulted in Lady Lovelace having to pawn her jewelry to keep out of debt—a lesson learned, I am sure. Financial problems aside, the machine, which was never built in their lifetime, was completed not that many years ago and did work, just as Ada said it would in her paper “Observations on Mr. Babbage's Analytical Engine”. Before the project collapsed in a fury of bad debt, Lady Lovelace wrote a working program to calculate Bernoulli numbers.

In this early moment of computing, a woman was actively involved. Indeed, if it is true that women have the keener language skills of the two sexes, it would follow that they would be more than able to contribute to computer science.

Grace Murray Hopper

Skipping a few decades, we come to the attack on Pearl Harbor and the American entry into World War Two. The epic navy battles of the Pacific Theater of Operations showed the need to find a way to quickly calculate the flight of a shell fired from the great eight-inch guns of the USN. The math was simple enough (maybe not for me, but for others), but in the stress of battle, errors were not uncommon. A calculator was devised to make the work simpler and easier. In the pressure of war, expediency won out over ingrained sexist ideas, and many women were recruited for the projects, which in a few years led to the birth of the electronic computer.

One of the most significant of these young women was Grace Murray Hopper. A slight woman, who taught at Vassar before the war and was obsessed with nanoseconds, she talked the USN into allowing her to volunteer even though the Navy preferred to have its scientific researchers as civilians. In the Bureau of Ordnance Computation, she worked on the early computers—vast machines weighing many tons and needing crews of programmers to work them. Tasks were performed by plugging wires into the back of the machine. Many of the wire-plugging programmers were women.

Grace Hopper, later promoted to Rear Admiral, is credited with many innovations in her field. Among the most important was her first use of the word bug. A moth once flew into the machine, and was “battered to death” by a relay. Grace, upon extracting the poor dead insect, taped it into one of her notebooks and wrote, “The first actual case of a bug being found.” A new phrase for the source of a hair-tearing error was coined. On a more serious note, her laziness (one of the virtues of a programmer) led her to develop the first compiler for the UNIVAC in the mid-fifties. Until then, all coding had been done in machine code, a time-consuming and often frustrating activity. The ability to write English words to get the job done was a great advance in computer science, although it met with strong resistance from engineers at the time. Grace Hopper learned to loathe the phrase “but this is how we have always done it.”

The invention of the compiler led directly to her work on the development of the FORTRAN and COBOL programming languages, which she helped write and later refined and standardized as a member of the Standards Committee. COBOL, notwithstanding the success of C, is still the most common language in use today; more lines of code are produced in COBOL than in any other language. It is a fitting testimony to her achievement. The invention of the compiler is one of those things that is easy to take for granted, but for ease of use and the ability to port code, it is a very powerful tool.


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