Standing on the Shoulders of Giants Part One: Women and a Brief History of Computing

With Women in STEM a topic of conversation these days, it is worth remembering that women have made a great number of contributions throughout history.

SI Neg. 83-14878. Date: na. Grace Murray Hopper at the UNIVAC keyboard, c. 1960. Grace Brewster Murray: American mathematician and rear admiral in the U.S. Navy who was a pioneer in developing computer technology, helping to devise UNIVAC I. the first commercial electronic computer, and naval applications for COBOL (common-business-oriented language). Credit: Unknown (Smithsonian Institution)

Grace Hopper circa 1960. Image Credit: Wikipedia

If you took a wild guess about the evolution of computing and engineering, you might expect to find that women have never been able to break into these fields. You may assume women are just now overcoming barriers that have existed since the first lever was pulled or the first line of code was written.

But what about the first computer programmer, who happened to be a woman born in 1815? The Countess Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, was a STEM pioneer. Apparently, there was no love lost between her parents, who separated shortly after her birth; Ada’s mother insisted that her daughter study science and mathematics out of fear that she would become a poet like her temperamental and brooding father – obsessed with dark nights and raven tresses.

In 1834, Ada met Charles Babbage, who was trying to invent a “calculating engine” that could predict certain outcomes and make decisions based on those predictions. She helped this fellow and ultimately published an article in which she discussed a future machine that could write music, draft artwork, and serve science. Then, she wrote a roadmap for how the engine could calculate a sequence of rational numbers called Bernoulli numbers; today, Ada’s work on this is considered to be the very first computer program.

Of course, one 19th century aristocrat does not a pattern make. What if we add a woman who served in the United States Navy? Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, dubbed Amazing Grace, is certainly owed space in our little list. In the 1940s, Hopper became the one of a small group of elite computer programmers to work on the first large-scale computer called Mark I: “An impressive beast. She was fifty-one feet long, eight feet high, and five feet deep,” she said. In the 1960s, Hopper wrote a computer language, COBOL, that streamlined the Navy’s programs, and she developed the concept of cleaning up a computer. She decided to name this process “debugging” after she opened up the behemoth Mark I to figure out why it wasn’t working properly and found a moth.

After Hopper came Sister Mary Kenneth Keller. She was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in computer science. And in the 1960s, this Catholic nun wrote the computer language BASIC, which essentially opened up the floodgates for computer programming. Prior to its creation, only mathematicians and scientists with advanced degrees could write programs or software. Using BASIC, anyone armed with this language could create new programs for computers, and many did.

Sister Mary Kenneth Keller. Image Credit: National Women’s History Museum

Sister Mary Kenneth Keller. Image Credit: National Women’s History Museum

Over the last 100 or so years, women have made invaluable contributions to the field of computer science. And thanks to the folks at Carnegie Mellon’s Ada Project, also add these outstanding ladies, in no particular order, to the list: Edith Clark, Margaret R. Fox, Hedy Lamarr (yes, that Hedy Lamarr), Kay McNulty, Frances Spence, Jean Bartik, Frances Elizabeth Holberton, Ruth Teitelbaum, Marlyn Meltzer, Adele Goldstine, Betty Snyder, Betty Jennings, Fran Bilas, Katherine Johnson, and many, many more.

Much of this work was due to World War II, when women were recruited to perform complex mathematical computations for code-breaking operations and ballistics calculations. Women were employed, quite literally, as human computers. As progress marched on, women could be found in the basements of companies like IBM, punching holes in cards that were used to store early programs. Women like Margaret Hamilton who, while working for NASA, wrote the code that allowed astronauts to safely leave the Earth’s orbit, land on the moon, and then return home. When stacked, the code listings that comprised the software for the Apollo computers towered over Hamilton’s 5-foot frame.

This raises an obvious question: Why would a field that was once somewhat integrated become male-dominated over just a few years? Research has provided clues, but no definitive answers. Some argue that the professionalization of the field led to more restrictive, male-centric hiring and recruiting in the 1960s and ‘70s. Others point to the evolution of the home computer, which fostered a gaming culture that was and continues to be the nearly exclusive domain of boys. One study cited by the American Association of University Women points to the personality and aptitude tests companies used when hiring; the researcher argued that these “tests led to a feedback cycle in which companies hired ‘antisocial, mathematically inclined males,’ perpetuating the belief that programmers should be antisocial, mathematically inclined males.”

Margaret Hamilton. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Margaret Hamilton. Image Credit: Wikipedia

These challenges are not new either. In some regards women’s entry into the world of computing mirrors their entry into another field: astronomy. Before women were employed to perform the mathematic equations to support the war efforts and advance the space race in the U.S., women were making an indelible mark in the ever-evolving fields of astronomy and astrophysics by working as human computers – counting and calculating the position of stars.

In astronomy, the advent of photography opened up doors for women in new and exciting ways. Previously barred from nighttime observations in drafty, cold observatories in the company of men, women soon discovered that photography made astronomy, as astronomer Annie Jump Cannon would write in 1929, “a daylight profession.”

In part two of this story, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: The Stellar Works of Women, read about how at Harvard, starting in the late 1800s, women were hard at work tackling the seemingly impossible: inventorying the heavens.

Jenny Woodman has been a science writer at Earthzine since 2014, and was an intern at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center prior to that. She recently finished her master’s in creative writing at Portland State University. This work has been adapted from her thesis is titled “Stellar Works: Searching for the Lives of Women in Science.”

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