A brief history of women in computer science

In the early winter of 1852 in London, Augusta Ada Lovelace was already awaiting death at the mere age of 36; sometimes I find my self wondering whether Ada would have ever thought that the notes that she made concerning the proposed analytical engine by Charles Babbage, the would-be father of computers will be the first-ever computer program ever written.

Ada was tasked with translating an article on her mentor Charles Babbage’s analytical engine written by Italian engineer Luigi Federico Menabrea for a Swiss journal. She translated the original French text into English and added her own thoughts and ideas on the machine. Her notes ended up being three times longer than the original article, which would later be published in 1843, in an English science journal.

In her notes, Ada described how codes could be created for the device to handle letters and symbols along with numbers. She also theorized a method for the engine to repeat a series of instructions, a process known as looping that computer programs use today. Lovelace also offered up other forward-thinking concepts in the article. She envisioned a wide range of applications for the analytical engine. She foresaw its use for more than just calculating and number crunching, even as its creator Charles Babbage and many others focused only on those capabilities.

Ada’s contributions to the field of computer science would remain forgotten for another century, Until 1953, In Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines, where B. V. Bowden republished her work. And she would later be immortalized by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1980 as the name of their newly developed computer language.

The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatsoever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. — Ada Lovelace

Sometime in 1947, At the Harvard Computation Laboratory, Grace Hopper and her colleagues are confused as to why the Aiken Relay Calculator on Mark II is not working; as grace checks and re-checks the relays on Mark II, she finds something amusing, A Moth is trapped in Relay 70, which is causing the calculator to malfunction. She yells out to her colleagues that she found a bug, which would later become a familiar word to every programmer and would be cemented in the history of computer programming as the word to describe program failures.

Coining the term Bug is an infinitesimally small feat when compared to what Grace Hopper would go on to contribute to the world of computer science.

In 1949 Hopper joined the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corp., where she designed one of the first compilers, which translated instructions into computer codes and coined the word compiler.

In1957 her division developed Flow-Matic, the first English-language data-processing compiler, which had many features that inspired COBOL.

It was Hopper’s strong belief that programs should be written in a language that was more human-readable, and should be close to English; later, In the spring of 1959, Hopper served as a technical consultant to the CODASYL, a committee that consisted of computer experts from industry and government, and the CODASYL committee created a new language named COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language). This new language extended Hopper’s FLOW-MATIC language with some ideas from the IBM equivalent at the time named COMTRAN. Grace’s vision of a programming language that was as readable as English was captured in the new business language. COBOL would go on to be the most ubiquitous business language to date.

Sixty years later, COBOL remains widely and actively used across the banking and finance systems.

On a cold winter’s day in 1959, Mary Allen Wilkes walked into the employment office of M.I.T,

“Do you have any jobs for computer programmers?” she asked.

They did have jobs for programmers, and it was hard to find one back then, the discipline did not exist yet (for example, Stanford didn’t have a computer science department until 1965.), So they hired her.

She started working on the IBM 704; not only did she have to write it in assembly language, since the 704 didn’t have a screen or a keyboard, but she also had to type it in and give it to a typist, who translated each command into holes on a punch card. She would carry boxes of commands to an “operator,” who then fed a stack of such cards into a reader. The computer-executed the program and produced results, and typed them out on a printer.

In 1961, Wilkes was assigned to a prominent new project, the creation of LINC. One of the world’s first interactive personal computers, the computer would fit in a lab or an office and would have its own keyboard and screen so that it could be programmed more quickly, without awkward punch cards or printouts. The designers, who knew they could make the hardware, needed Wilkes to help write the software that would let a user control the computer in real-time.

In 1964, when Wilkes returned home after traveling the world, she was asked to finish writing the operating system for LINC, Which she gladly accepted. But, as she did not want to move to St.Louis, where the lab that she worked at was re-located to, they sent her a LINC computer to her home in Baltimore, She was one of the first people in the world to have a personal computer in her home.

Soon after, LINC users around the world were using her code to program medical analyses and even create a chatbot that interviewed patients about their symptoms.

In the afternoon of July 20th, 1969, from 384,400 Kilometers away, Michael Collins, flying the command ship(Still in orbit while Aldrin and Armstrong are on their way to the moon) from behind the Moon, reports to Earth that the landing craft is on its way down to the lunar surface. It is the first time Mission Control has heard of the action. “Everything’s going just swimmingly. Beautiful!” Collins reports.

Meanwhile, below the lunar orbit, Armstrong throttles up the engine to slow the Lunar module before dropping down on the lunar surface. The landing is not easy. The site they approach is four miles from the target point, on the southwestern edge of the Sea of Tranquility. Seeing that they are approaching a crater about the size of a football field and covered with large rocks, Armstrong takes over manual control and steers the craft to a smoother spot. His heartbeat has risen from a normal 77 to 156.

Time is now 20:09, Mission control, A radio message from the eagle is received, it’s aldrin, a slight but recognizable panic in his voice, “we are on final minutes of descent, Eagle’s computer is sounding alarms, The 1202 alarm has gone off”, the panic has spread from aldrin’s voice into the faces of everyone at mission control. A moment of silence, Mission control is notified of another alarm going off on the Guidance computer onboard the Eagle; this time, it is 1201, silence has now completely taken over.

Guidance Officer Steve Bales turns to the left corner of the room with a looming question on his face, “Margaret,” he exclaimed,

” Tell them it is safe to proceed.”

There was not a shadow of doubt in the response. The message is relayed back to the eagle.

Eight minutes later, the 68-inch probes beneath three of the spacecraft’s four footpads touch down, flashing a light on the instrument panel, Armstrong shuts off the ship’s engine. The craft settles down with a jolt almost like that of a jet landing on a runway. It is at an angle of no more than four or five degrees on the right side of the Moon as seen from Earth. Armstrong immediately radios Mission Control: “The Eagle has landed.”.

The woman in the corner from the earlier story was Margaret Heafield Hamilton; She was director of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, which developed the on-board flight software for the Apollo space program. And this would be the first time the world would hear the term “Software Engineering.” It didn’t exist before.

“It quickly became clear,” Margaret later said, “that the software was not only informing everyone that there was a hardware-related problem, but that the software was compensating for it.” An investigation would eventually show that the astronauts’ checklist was at fault, telling them to set the rendezvous radar hardware switch incorrectly. “Fortunately, the people at Mission Control trusted our software,”

The achievement was a monumental task at a time when computer technology was in its infancy: The astronauts had access to only 72 kilobytes of computer memory (in comparison, a 64-gigabyte cell phone today carries almost a million times more storage space). Programmers had to use paper punch cards to feed information into room-sized computers with no screen interface.

As the landing occurred, Hamilton, then 32, was hooked up to Mission Control from MIT. “I was not concentrating on the mission, per se,” Margaret confessed. “I was concentrating on the software.” After everything worked properly, the weight of the moment hit her. “My God. Look what happened. We did it. It worked. It was exciting.”

While developing the guidance and navigation systems for the Apollo missions, Margaret Hamilton was the one who coined the term “software engineering.” She felt that software developers earned the right to be called engineers; she was met with criticism at the time; they said it inflated her work’s importance, but today when software engineers represent a fervently sought-after segment of the workforce, no one is laughing at Margaret Hamilton.

What clearly began as a field heavily dominated by women changed shortly after World War II. In the US, recognizing software development was a significant expense; companies wanted to hire an “ideal programmer.” Psychologists William Cannon and Dallis Perry were hired to develop an aptitude test for programmers. From an industry that was more than 50% women, they selected 1400 people, 1200 of whom were male. This paper was highly influential and claimed to have “trained the industry” in hiring programmers, with a heavy focus on introverts and men.

During World War II, women operated some of the first computational machines used for code-breaking at Bletchley Park. In the United States, by 1960, according to government statistics, more than one in four programmers were women. At M.I.T.’s Lincoln Labs in the 1960s, where Wilkes worked, she recalls that most of those the government categorized as “career programmers” were female. It wasn’t high-status work — yet.

According to the American Association of University Women, By 1970, women only accounted for 13.6% of bachelor’s in computer science graduates. In 1984 that number rose to 37%, but it has since declined to 18% — around the same time personal computers started showing up in homes.

In Britain, following the war, women programmers were selected for redundancy and forced retirement, leading to the country losing its position as computer science leader by 1974.

180 years after Ada Lovelace scribbled down the first computer program, and 60 years later Grace Hopper redefined programming, here we are, Computer science is now plagued by stereotypes and is an unsustainable career path for women, at least in the western hemisphere, Somehow we have managed to go backward.

The usual argument that I hear is that none of this is deliberate and that there are fewer women in engineering because fewer women choose STEM in their education as a path to follow. But the matter of fact is that engineering and especially computer engineering is inaccessible to women, and we as a society have directly contributed to the social situation that led us here, maybe not you or me individually, but we do have to bear responsibility for our actions as a collective society.

It has long been my opinion that for us to make progress as a society, technology and education should not only be accessible but should also provide sustainable paths for talent to grow regardless of their gender.

A 2019 report from HackerRank suggests that women are far more likely to be in junior positions as a developer than men regardless of their age, in fact, the report found that 20% of women above the age of 35 hold junior positions in companies, while for men that number falls to a mere 4%.

Another report by CapitalOne in 2019, found that the majority of women who stay in tech (73%) said they considered leaving their tech careers at some point because of limited opportunity for advancement (27%), unfair compensation compared with male peers (25%), and little support of management (22%).In the same report, of the women who stayed in tech, 75% said they had female role models in their company, 45% said they participated in peer groups, and 56% said they had good mentors and were given training opportunities.

Inspiration is infectious, to truly empower women in tech, we must allow them to inspire other women to step into the industry and provide them with avenues to share their stories and help other women navigate their own careers.

I believe that if we were to provide the right opportunities and mentorship and create an inclusive and supportive environment for our female peers maybe, just maybe, we will find Grace Hoppers, Margaret Hamiltons, and Mary Allen Wilkeses among us once again, and we will be better for it.

Professional Opinionist || Bookworm || Writer || Amateur(and Immature) People Critic