Let’s visit with “the first computer programmer,” the mother of COBOL, and others
When it comes to technological advances, there’s no one particular person to thank. Many people over centuries have contributed to various aspects of computer science bringing us the wonderful tools we use today.
These five women made their marks over time because of their achievements in this industry. From computer programming to rocket trajectories to the internet, without each woman on this list, we may not be where we are today.
Ada Lovelace (1815–1852) studied mathematics which was an odd educational choice for women at her time. But it’s those studies that led to her referral as “the first computer programmer.”
After meeting Charles Babbage in 1833 and viewing his demonstration, Lovelace was captivated by the working section of the Analytical Engine. Understandably, the machine was thought of more as a mathematical and scientific tool at that time.
However, Lovelace believed that the machine could do more than calculations. In her extensive notes and annotations, she studied how people and society could relate to technology as a collective tool. Ada Lovelace developed the first algorithm to be performed by the machine.
Your best and wisest refuge from all troubles is in your science.
In 2009, Ada Lovelace Day was launched to celebrate the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). On the second Tuesday in October each year, events are held around the globe to inspire women to pursue careers in these fields.
While some may dispute her being called “the first computer programmer,” Ada Lovelace’s contributions to technology were impactful, especially for a woman of her time.
Grace Murray Hopper
Grace Murray Hopper (1906–1992) was a rear admiral in the Naval Reserve, worked as a senior mathematician on the UNIVAC1 team, and is best known as “The Mother of Cobol.”
After attending Vassar College and Yale University, Hopper developed the first computer language compiler, created with his team the Math-Matic and Flow-Matic programming languages, and then defined Cobol, a computer language still used in systems today.
Hopper worked with Howard Aiken to develop the Mark 1, programmed the computer, and wrote a user manual for it that came in at over 500 pages. As a member of the military, her and her team’s computations were used for rocket trajectories, minesweepers, and range tables for new guns.
They told me computers could only do arithmetic.
Adopted by the National Bureau of Standards (now known as NIST), she also developed standards for testing computer systems and components.
Hopper received the National Medal of Technology, was named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and after her passing, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contributions to computer science.
Grace Murray Hopper’s many accomplishments paved the way for advancements in various sectors we know today. From the military to technology, she has been internationally recognized for her work.
Sister Mary Kenneth Keller
Sister Mary Kenneth Keller (1913–1985) was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in Computer Science and developed the programming language BASIC (Beginners All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code).
Keller started her technology journey in Chicago, Illinois. She attended DePaul University and earned a BS in Mathematics in 1943 and an MS in Mathematics and Physics in 1953. After that, she worked in the computer science center at the National Science Foundation workshop. Alongside John G. Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz, Keller created BASIC.
Before the inception of BASIC, only mathematicians and scientists could program software. BASIC became a groundbreaking language that allowed anyone to create custom software.
For the first time, we can now mechanically simulate the cognitive process.
Keller established a computer science department at the Clark College Catholic school for women. She believed strongly in women’s involvement in the computer sciences and was noted for her support and encouragement for working mothers.
Clark College went on to create the Mary Kenneth Keller Computer Science Scholarship as well as the Keller Computer Center to support staff and students.
If not for Sister Mary Kenneth Keller’s creation of the BASIC programming language and the belief that computers should be for everyone, we may not be where we are now in computer science.
Katherine Johnson (1918–2020) had a brilliant mind that took her to the notable feat of manually performing calculations for NASA, its missions, and its astronauts.
Johnson left her teaching job in 1939 to study at West Virginia State College as one of three African American students picked to attend. She earned a BS in Mathematics and French.
After leaving school and starting a family, she heard of open positions at the West Area Computing section of NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics). Johnson pursued the position, began work with the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division, and then spent years analyzing flight test data.
With the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957, Johnson’s career took a turn that would eventually land her an important role. She performed a trajectory analysis of Alan Shepard’s 1961 Freedom 7 and coauthored a report titled Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position with engineer Ted Skopinski.
The report laid out “equations describing an orbital spaceflight in which the landing position of the spacecraft is specified.” Johnson was the first woman to receive credit for authoring a research report at the Flight Research Division.
Like what you do, and then you will do your best.
After NACA became NASA and in 1962 when John Glenn was preparing for the Friendship 7 mission, computers were programmed with the necessary equations for liftoff and splashdown. However, the team wasn’t particularly confident in the machines at that time. It was then that Glenn called in Johnson to run the same equations manually at her desk.
Needless to say, the mission was a success and marked a critical point in regard to the space between the US and the Soviet Union.
Katherine Johnson is also known for calculations for Project Apollo’s Lunar Module, the Space Shuttle, and the Earth Resources Technology Satellite. She also authored and coauthored 26 research reports. Johnson’s analytical mind, contributions to NASA, and commitment to her work earned her a spot on this list.
Radia Perlman (b. 1951) is a computer programmer and network engineer whose talents and achievements have given the world one of its most rewarded pieces of technology today—the internet.
Perlman attended MIT where she earned a BS and MS in Mathematics and a Ph.D. in Computer Science. Her doctoral thesis covered “routing in environments where malicious network failures are present” which is the basis for what we see today.
After completing her studies, Perlman started work with Bolt, Berenek, and Newman, inc (BBN) but was quickly whisked away to work for Digital Equipment Corporation. It was then that he invented the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP) which is a loop-prevention network protocol essential to the operation of network bridges.
I always thought it was a bad idea to forward Ethernet packets.
Perlman went on to help design the DECnet IV and V protocols and IS-IS that contributed to the Connectionless Network Protocol (CLNP) and collaborated with Yakov Rekhter on the development of network routing standards. She worked as a network engineer for Oracle (originally Sun Microsystems) specializing in network and security protocols and obtained over 50 patents.
Radia Perlman was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2014 along with the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2016 and has several awards and credits to her name. Radia Perlman has been called “The Mother of the Internet” with good reason.
For more, look at the most important women in the history of video games.