As you are reading this blog with a thousand other tabs open on your browser and maybe some Spotify playing in the background, you and half the population of the world are entering an evolving virtual universe mediated by one single device — the computer.
Modern technology has led to drastic changes to society in the past century, at a much quicker rate and of a greater scale than any of its predecessors; yet, when it comes to those behind-the-screen who created, designed, run, and developed the technology from its toddler days until now, more often than not, people would only think of Alan Turing, John Von Neumann, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and the like. Women mathematicians and computer engineers are usually left out of this history, with their contributions downplayed to those of their male counterparts. Just leaf through this legitimate website about computer history and tell me if you can find a single woman in there!
Now, let me ask you a question: Do you know who was the first computer-programmer ever?
I have asked this question to some of my friends here at Randolph, and they were all clueless. Yet, their usual responses would be something like this: “Don’t know, some guy I guess…” assuming that such a great invention must have been the product of a man’s mind, not a woman’s (Of course! Why am I even surprised?)
Let me tell you, the first person to conceive what you cannot live without today was a woman, and she is Ada Lovelace, also known as the Countess of Lovelace, born in 1815.
Despite being a woman in the 19th century and the daughter of Lord Byron, Lovelace wasn’t brought up to be a romantic poet. Her mother, Lady Byron, had her tutored exclusively in mathematics as an antidote to poetry and Lovelace grew into a brilliant mathematician. As she was working with the famous mathematician Charles Babbage, she saw the potential of computer to do more than just complex calculation and how it is possible to load any set of instruction onto the computer and have it do the job for you. She even did a demonstration by programming Bernoulli numbers, an incredibly complicated sequence of numbers. While Babbage and Lovelace’s machine wasn’t built, their journals were read by the people building the first modern computer a century later. And guess what? Those people include women mathematicians too!
I watched this YouTube video from the Computer History Museum about the women programmers who contributed to the success of ENIAC, the first digital computer; and it angered me how they were mistreated. According to the speaker, Jean Bartik, she, along with five other women mathematicians, were in charge of programming the computer while the men focus on hardware development because men didn’t think programming is an important job (haha…). She said the job wasn’t very rewarding and ENIAC didn’t even work the day before its demonstration. The women worked late into the night and managed to get the computer working, while the men went out to a celebration dinner, not even cared to invite the women programmers. “People never recognized, they never acted as though we knew what we were doing. I mean, we were in a lot of pictures,” she said in the interview.
Another example of women’s contribution to the development of modern technology would be Grace Hopper, a computer scientist and a Navy Rear Admiral. As I mentioned earlier, back then, hardware is valued more than software. But Grace Hopper, dubbed “The Queen of Software,” proved that such a belief is false.
She developed a programming language similar to English named FLOW-MATIC, the predecessor of COBOL, which is still used today in business, finance, and administrative systems for companies and governments, and showed that programming is more important, because once you have the instruction, you can run it on any hardware. Like Lovelace a century ago, Hopper can see the potential of computer in ways that her male counterparts may not. She was also the guest of The David Letterman Show in 1986 and you should check her out — her answers were all so witty!
In addition to Lovelace, Bartik, or Hopper, I believed there were several other women contributing to the development of computer as it is today that I just don’t know about. It is important that we, the beneficiaries of such a wonderful invention, take a look back in time and honor the women who were part of a milestone innovation in world history. These women are great role models for girls who love math and computer programming but are deterred by social norm to enter the field, as they have proved quite convincingly that women can do whatever men can do, and even do it better sometimes.
Please share with me if you have any women role models who inspire you to be who you are right now. They can be in any fields, they can be anyone, historical figure or your mother. I’d love to hear about all of them because they have passed the torch of women’s power to the next generation in one way or another.