“When [women] have been written out of the history, [girls] don’t have great role models. But when you learn about the women who programmed ENIAC or Grace Hopper or Ada Lovelace … it happened to my daughter. She read about all these people when she was in high school, and she became a math and computer science geek.”
When you try to envision a computer programmer, the picture of a man pops up in your mind, right? Well, statistically speaking, on the whole, it’s true. Recently, the reports of many big tech companies revealed how few of their employees in programming and technical jobs are females. Google has some of the highest rates: 17 percent of its technical staff is female.
This gender imbalance in tech is a problem and it’s no secret – today, just 18% of computer science graduates are women. In 1984 the number was 37% (more than double). It wasn’t always this way. Decades ago, it was women who excelled in the field of computer programming and technology. To mark the International Women’s Day – We celebrate the work of six brilliant females the world has witnessed.
Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)
The First Computer Programmer
Although she earned little public recognition during her lifetime, Ada Lovelace is now considered a pioneer and prophet of the computer age. In the first entry to his book Innovators, Walter Isaacson wrote: “Like Steve Jobs, [Ada Lovelace] stands at the intersection of arts and technology.”
Ada Lovelace was Lord Byron’s first child. That’s Lord Byron the notorious British Romantic poet who personified aristocratic excess, and was considered ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. Ada’s mother, Lady Wentworth, was so keen that Ada avoids nurturing any dangerous poetical tendencies, that Ada was tutored almost exclusively in mathematics.
Ironically, though, Ada would find poetry in numbers. At 17 years old, Ada translated an article written about the so-called analytical machine – an early mechanical computer designed by her friend and mentor, the mathematician Charles Babbage. Along with translating the article from French to English, she added copious notes and annotations of her own about the machine and how it would work. Babbage’s machine was never built. But his designs and Lovelace’s notes were read by people building the first computer a century later. Today, these notes are thought of as the first ever algorithm, making Ada the world’s first ever computer programmer.
Jean Jennings Bartik (1924-2011)
In her eulogy, the New York Times called Jean Bartik ‘one of the first computer programmers and a pioneering forerunner in a technology that came to be known as software.’
Jean was one of the last surviving of a group of six female mathematicians who programmed the ENIAC, or Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, the first all-electronic digital computer. Built by the Allies during World War II to calculate the firing trajectories for artillery shells, it could calculate in 30 seconds a trajectory that took a human 20 hours (an increase in speed of nearly 24,000 percent). Although it wasn’t finished until after the war in 1946, today it’s considered a milestone in modern computing.
According to Jean, the men who were building the machine hardware considered the actual programming of the machine unimportant. Astonishingly, when the finished Eniac was unveiled to the public, Jean and her fellow female coders were considered unimportant too and weren’t even introduced at the event.
The oversight has been readdressed to some extent in recent years, with Jean receiving professional recognition for work. Before the 50th anniversary of the Eniac, the Wall Street Journal ran a story titled: ‘History of Software Begins With Brainy Women’s Work’. As a result, said Jean in 2009, ‘all hell broke loose – everyone was interested in the Eniac women!’
Grace Hopper (1906-1992)
“Amazing Grace,” Queen of Software
Grace Hopper was a computer scientist, Yale Ph.D., and United States Navy Rear Admiral who also—on top of everything else—helped pioneer computer programming. “Humans are allergic to change,” she once said. “They love to say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ I try to fight that. That’s why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise.”
Known better to some as Grandma COBOL or the Queen of Software, Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper revolutionized how we talk to computers. Initially, computers spoke in binary code – and ones and zeros are impossible for humans to read. Grace believed that written code should be closer to English, thereby paving the way for more programmers who could command computers in new and exciting ways.
During her illustrious career, Hopper worked on UNIVAC I, the first commercial computer produced in the U.S., and created the first compiler. She is also credited with coining the term “computer bug” when she found a real moth inside the massive UNIVAC I.
If that wasn’t enough, Hopper also invented FLOW-MATIC, the first English-like data processing language, which helped spark the development of COBOL, which eventually became the Navy’s standard operating language.
Late-night show host David Letterman once asked Hopper, “You know you’re the Queen of Software, right?”
She replied: “More or less.”
Radia Perlman (1951- )
“Don’t Call Me Mother of the Internet”
Radia Perlman often described as the ‘Mother of the Internet,’ insists that “The Internet was not invented by any individual.”
Perlman did, however, create the algorithm behind the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP), which is an essential part of the Internet’s underlying foundation.
As a child, Perlman put a lot of pressure on herself to get straight A’s. Although she excelled at all subjects, she naturally gravitated to math and science because she could control her grades by just knowing the right answer. Although her mother was a mathematician/computer programmer, similar to the women of ENIAC, the two rarely spoke about programming.
Perlman went on to MIT, just one of the handful of females in her class (~50 of 1,000 students). In 2000, Perlman published her textbook “Interconnections,” greatly simplifying network routing and bridging. “My book created order,” she later said. “It was easy to understand while being conceptually thought-provoking, and a large part of the technology described was stuff I’d invented.”
Despite her success, Perlman keeps a level head and credits others equally for her success: “In engineering, the point is to get the job done, and people are happy to help. You should be generous with credit, and you should be happy to help others.
Carol Shaw (1955 – )
Atari Game Developer
Carol Shaw was born and raised in Palo Alto, CA. Always excellent at math, it wasn’t until she inherited her brothers’ model railroad that Shaw began tinkering with electronics: “I actually designed some circuitry … with some transistors and stuff that would turn on the signal light for various blocks showing there was a train up ahead.”
Fresh out of Berkeley’s Computer Science graduate program, Shaw accepted a position at game-maker Atari in the late 1970s. Wearing thick-rimmed glasses and flannel, she biked 10 miles each way to design and program video games.
Eventually landing at Activision, Shaw programmed one of the Atari’s best-known shooter games, River Raid. For the first time, gamers could experience an inordinate amount of non-random, repeating terrain despite constrictive memory limits. River Raid was the first game that allowed the shooter to accelerate and slow down all over the screen.
Shaw’s work as a pioneer game designer has made her a legend to two generations of tech pros and gamers.
Susan Kare (1954 – )
The Apple Icon
Although she briefly worked for Microsoft, Susan Kare is best known for her work with Bill Gate’s nemesis, Steve Jobs.
Kare followed dreams of a career in the fine arts to San Francisco. A chance encounter with an old high school friend landed her an interview with Apple. Steve Jobs, inspired by Xerox’s graphical user interface (GUI), was on the hunt for an artist who could design Macintosh’s icons. She got the job. “The moral is to have confidence in your skill mix,” she later said. “Because I certainly didn’t have a computer background.”
Using a pad of graph paper, Kare designed icons that were simple, elegant, and playful. The original designs were just 32 x 32 pixels. Kare is also responsible for developing the command (“Apple”) key as a stylized castle seen from above.
As part of her Apple work, Kare created the typeface Chicago, used in the first four generations of the iPod. To keep the lettering smooth and seamless, all lines were purposefully made horizontal, vertical, or on a 45-degree angle. That sort of attention to detail has continued to define Apple to this day.