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

My Mother the Computer Programmer

My mother did the traditional thing when she married in 1963. She left work to raise children. She did housework and in her spare time enjoyed embroidering. She even exhibited her embroidery. But underneath this conventional exterior my mother did things differently.

Mum decided to complete year twelve when I was a baby. Her mother-in-law approved of her studying.  “She was pleased to have a daughter in law that had a mind above housework”, recalled my mother. My grandmother had gone to university herself and worked in London and Paris in the 1920s. My mother appreciates the fact that her mother-in-law encouraged her and looked after me while my mother did her year twelve exams.

My father got a new job so we moved away from our family in Melbourne and settled in Hobart. I remember at dinner my father would invariably ask what my mother had done that day. As a seven or eight year old I disliked the question because I knew the dreary response that would come from my mother. “I washed the clothes and hung them out, then I vacuumed the stairs and upstairs….” Zzzzzz. As a child I recognised how deadly dull my mother’s life was and felt sorry for her.

Of course I didn’t say anything to her about that at the time but years later Mum told me how much she dreaded that habitual question from my father. However, my father was listening. “He saw I was bored”, she said. An advertisement in the newspaper attracted my father’s attention. It was about studying at university. He encouraged my mother to apply.  This would have been 1972 or 1973. Continue reading