Women were Among the World’s First Computer Programmers

The first published computer program was written by a woman. The programmers of the world’s earliest digital computers were women. The inventor of the significant technology behind the most widely used programming language in the twentieth century was a woman. The software which was responsible for the first landing of men on the moon was written by a programming team led by a woman.

Clearly women are capable of being excellent programmers, but in a classic example of our culture preventing natural abilities from shining, the information technology industry is dominated by men. Worse, girls in the West are still growing up in societies that expect them not to be as good at using information technology as boys, or interested in becoming information technology professionals.

A little bit of history demonstrates how wrong those attitudes are.

This week Ada Lovelace Day was celebrated around the world to recognise women’s achievements in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). It is named in honour of the women who is widely recognised as the world’s first programmer – Ada Lovelace.

Painting of Lovelace wearing a purple Victorian-era dress and Victorian-era fancy hairstyle.

Ada Lovelace is the stated author of what is now recognised as the world’s first published computer program in 1842. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ada Lovelace was the daughter of the poet, Lord Byron. Her parents had separated when she was a baby and her mother ensured that she had a mathematical education to counter what her mother saw as the ‘madness’ of Byron’s poetical mind. She was mentored by another important nineteenth century female scientist, Mary Somerville. Through Somerville Lovelace met Charles Babbage, the inventor of the forerunner to modern computers. Ada Lovelace claimed to write instructions for Babbage’s Analytical Engine even though the machine had not been built. She had to work off Babbage’s plans for this complex machine and discussions with him.

The instructions for the Analytical Engine that Lovelace claimed to write are now regarded as the first published computer program.

However, there is an ongoing debate about how much of this was her work and how much was that of Babbage himself. Clearly Babbage would have had to, at the very least, devise some simple instructions while creating this machine and to check his design. Hence I have observed that Lovelace was the stated author of the world’s first published program. (See Addendum at the end of this post for more discussion about this debate)

What was probably even more insightful about her work was her observation that the machine could be used to run many sorts of different programs. In Ada Lovelace’s ground breaking paper published in 1842, she observed:

The Analytical Engine, on the contrary, is not merely adapted for tabulating the results of one particular function and of no other, but for developing and tabulating any function whatever. In fact the engine may be described as being the material expression of any indefinite function of any degree of generality and complexity

Ada Lovelace also considered the question of artificial intelligence:

The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths. Its province is to assist us in making available what we are already acquainted with.

(Wow, I became so absorbed by Ada Lovelace’s work that I am reading some of her paper from 1842.)

Nearly one hundred years later, computing pioneer, Alan Turing picked up on Ada Lovelace’s arguments about artificial intelligence to develop his own thinking in this area. (Turing’s article from 1950 is another interesting one that has side-tracked me somewhat.)

Ada Lovelace was an important pioneer in information technology, but she was not the only one. Continue reading

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Indian Soldiers Fought at Gallipoli

Group of soldiers wearing turbans gathered on top of a hill around a gun barrel on wheels.

The Australian War Memorial says of this photo, “A group of gunners from the 7th Indian Mountain Artillery Brigade with one of their guns, which was used to support the Australian and New Zealand troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula. The guns of this brigade were the first shore at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915; from then on they won, and kept, the admiration of the infantry.”

The Anzac Day that was bigger than ever has been and gone. Returned soldiers from Australia and New Zealand have marched for another year, remembering wars past and present. This year was the centenary of the event that started it all – the landing of British forces at Gallipoli. Australians and New Zealanders were there.

And so were many Indians.

New Zealand journalist, William Hill landed as a soldier with the Auckland Infantry Battalion. While in hospital later that year he wrote a letter in which he recalled:

The first realisation of what the war really is like came to us as we stumbled across the beach, which was just littered with wounded men – English, French, Indians, New Zealanders and Australians.

29/8/1915

On Saturday Indian soldiers marched at Anzac Day events around Australia. The presence of Indians in the Anzac Day marches is an important reminder of the nature of World War I. It was a war of empires. The imperial overlords mustered the colonials to battle the armies of other empires. At Gallipoli the armies of the French and British empires fought the Ottoman forces on their home soil. The British forces included soldiers from England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, the India subcontinent and Newfoundland which is now part of Canada.

One hundred years after the first landing of troops at Gallipoli Australians hear very little about the Indian soldiers who played an important part in the fighting at Gallipoli. Yet there are many references to the Indians at Gallipoli in the diaries of the Anzacs. Continue reading

Archives are Important… Very Important

We all rely on archives. The moment that we first drew breath in this world is registered in an archive. Our education records, driving records, legal records, marriage and death are all recorded in an archive somewhere. We go about our lives assuming that vital information about our lives is automatically and adequately stored by our governments. We assume that important records about the workings of government and businesses are held.  Our justice system depends on well-maintained archives and strong archival procedures.

Yet it doesn’t always work like that.

This particular story concerns the Mau Mau uprising in the British colony, Kenya during the 1950s.It is about a civil war, the messiest kind of war where right and wrong are obscured in viscious blood-letting that involves too many willing and unwilling participants. Very few people emerge from such wars without harbouring personal shame, bitter regrets and a sense of loss that lives with them for the rest of their lives. Continue reading