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

Presenting at a Conference in the Social Media Age

Conference sign stating name of conferenceIn many respects the format of academic conferences has not changed much over the years. There will be some plenary sessions with keynote lectures but the hive of the conference is the parallel sessions where many presenters stand up, read their paper and answer a few questions afterwards. Once upon a time presenters may have used overhead transparencies. These have been replaced by powerpoint presentations which in the hands of most presenters are little different to the old technology.

But social media has introduced a profound change to the dynamics of conferences. The soundscape of plenary sessions at the Global Digital Humanities conference did not simply comprise the tones of the person speaking on stage. There was also the soft sounds of hundreds of fingers tapping on keyboards, reporting the conference to the world via Twitter.

Over several conferences I have been observing presenters and thinking about how best to present a paper in the Social Media Age. At the Australian Historical Association conference a few weeks ago I had a chance to put some ideas into practice.

Firstly I made sure I put my name and my Twitter handle on the bottom of every powerpoint slide. The best way of giving attribution on Twitter is to use the presenter’s Twitter handle but too often the people tweeting a paper are not aware that the presenter is on Twitter. The presenter misses out on a higher profile online and the possibility of connecting to more colleagues online. Likewise the audience misses out on an opportunity to expand their professional networks. Continue reading

Digital History at #OzHA2015? There was some

Screenshot of the home page of the website.

The Prosecution Project from Griffith University is examining the history of criminal trials in Australia between 1850 and 1960.

There are good reasons to attend conferences. I treat them as my CPD (professional parlance for Continuing Professional Development). At a productive conference I learn a great deal from being immersed in a learning environment for several days. The breaks are as productive as a session because they are good opportunities to chat with others in the field about their work and further discuss what we have learned. These blog posts I am writing are a further opportunity for me to think through new ideas and approaches as well as to pass the learning on.

The Global Digital Humanities Conference was a week before the Australian Historical Association Conference. As I said in previous posts, Australian historians Peter Read, Julia Torpey and Tim Sherratt featured at those conferences. It was a rare opportunity for Australian historians interested in Digital History to learn from leading digital humanities practitioners.

It is very difficult for one person to attend two conferences in one fortnight, so it was understandable that digital history was not a big focus at the Australian Historical Association Conference. There were no sessions titled ‘digital history’ or something similar that would convey that the papers were about the use of technology in history.

Yet digital history was there. My paper was about digital history as was Janette Pelosi’s paper about the State Records NSW digitisation project, ‘Sentenced Beyond the Seas‘ which she presented in the same session.

With low expectations I have searched through the 2015 conference abstracts for papers featuring the words, digital, data, website, internet, social media, Facebook, Twitter. To my surprise I found thirteen papers which could be regarded as digital history. This was more than I expected. Continue reading

International Researchers Value Work of Australian Libraries and Archives

Trove logoParticipants at the recent Global Digital Humanities conference will remember the prominent contributions of Australian historians, Tim Sherratt, Julia Torpey and Peter Read. But I also want to highlight the more low profile but no less important contribution of Australian cultural institutions in bringing Australian historical records to world attention.

Australian governments and other funding bodies have shown international leadership by funding significant digitisation programs that have are freely accessible to the people of the world. This contribution to the world’s bank of knowledge is inestimable. As I listened to the papers presented at the Global Digital Humanities Conference I was struck by just how significant digitised Australian historical sources are for researchers around the world.

The Trove website is the flagship of Australia’s digitisation programs. Led by the National Library of Australia, with significant contributions from Australia’s state libraries, it is truly a treasure trove of all sorts of digitised items, including its famed digitised newspapers as well as the catalogue records of hundreds of cultural institutions around Australia. It is a massive online resource.

We would expect Australian researchers to embrace this resource, as they do, but researchers from other countries are also using Trove’s resources in cutting edge work.  Every day we researchers presented papers which referred to Trove. Every day one of these papers was presented by researchers who worked for universities or cultural institutions outside Australia.

These papers, like all papers at the conference, demonstrate world class research in the field of digital humanities. As the conference proceeded it became clear that Trove has made an important contribution to leading international research. Continue reading

Australian Historian Captivates International Audience

The work of Australian historians, librarians and archivists is highly valued internationally. In my last post I highlighted the work of Australian historians Julia Torpey and Peter Read which featured in a plenary panel at the recent Global Digital Humanities Conference. But they were not the only Australian historians who featured.

Sherratt behind a podium

Tim Sherratt

On the last day of the conference we were treated to an insightful keynote address by Tim Sherratt, Associate Professor of Digital Heritage, Manager of Trove Australia and inventor of many innovative digital tools. Tim Sherratt is an historian who is blazing a trail for thoughtful and innovative use of technology in the research and presentation of history.

Sherratt captivated his audience from around the world with his talk, ‘Unremembering the forgotten’. Delving back into twentieth century Australian history, Sherratt questioned the nature of our access to government archives. He argued that  “access is a process of control rather than liberation”.

Sherratt is working to reveal the lives of people who are not remembered in our histories. In his keynote address he argued that the lives of these ‘forgotten’ people are often recorded in archival documents but these people have been ‘unremembered’. They are hidden from our view because of the way the catalogue search has been structured. Tim Sherratt demonstrated that when we take charge of our search for information by building our own digital tools we can retrieve the stories of the forgotten, but likewise the digital tools we use every day when searching websites can shut out the memories of the forgotten. Continue reading

Aboriginal Digital Knowledge Takes Centre Stage at International Conference


The couches came out at #dh2015 for the Indigenous Digital Knowledge panel. Photo by Bruce B Janz via Twitter.

The couches came out at #dh2015 for the Indigenous Digital Knowledge panel. Photo by Bruce B Janz via Twitter.

Ground breaking use of technology by Australian Aboriginal people was featured at the recent Global Digital Humanities Conference held at the University of Western Sydney. In a session that captivated the attention of academics from around the world the Indigenous Digital Knowledge plenary panel demonstrated that Aboriginal people are innovative in their embrace of technology.

Unlike so many conferences which non-indigenous people lead the discussion about indigenous issues, three of the four academics on this panel are Aboriginal people. As many Aboriginal people have observed, they are probably the most studied populations on earth, but it is the non-indigenous researchers who get credited in our society for their knowledge about Aboriginal people.  It was refreshing to hear from Aboriginal people who are experts in their fields of technology and the humanities tell a non-indigenous audience how it is for Aboriginal people. Continue reading

Conference, Hack, Conference

An Aussie Rules football match earlier this year in western Sydney. This is where I segue into a comment relating to the conferences but really, I don't think any of the international attendees at the conference at University of Sydney this week will be attending a footy match.

An Aussie Rules football match earlier this year in Western Sydney between Greater Western Sydney and Hawthorn. This is where I should segue into a comment relating to the conferences but really, I don’t think any of the international attendees at the conference at University of Sydney this week will be attending a footy match. I could also make a comment about attendees kicking goals and being ‘on the ball’ but that has been done before. I’ll be honest, I couldn’t find a photo that related to the subject matter.

Today I am embarking on a crazy eleven days. This week I am attending the International Digital Humanities Conference at the University of Western Sydney. When that ends on Friday, I then head to the State Library of NSW for the weekend of the GovHack competition. I’ll be there throughout the weekend extracting a variety datasets about World War I as part of a team which will produce something online which will help people gain greater insights into an aspect of the history of the War. Then on Monday 6th July the annual Australian Historical Association conference commences. I am delivering a paper at this conference.

Digital Humanities is an emerging discipline about the use of technology in humanities research. GovHack is an annual competition where Australian governments, and this year New Zealand, encourage people to use government datasets, merge them, filter them, visualise them and generally be creative with them in order to find new insights and help people to connect with this information. The WWIHack is part of the GovHack competition this year. Cultural institutions from around Australia and New Zealand are making available datasets about World War One available for the competition. All datasets are freely available for anyone to use, so even if you are not entering these competitions you can also have a look at them and see what you can make of them.

I am exhausted thinking about it, but in these two weeks I will learn so much that will be useful for my work. As well as an important learning opportunity these events will recharge my enthusiasm for my book and make me look at it in a new light.

I will be sharing my experience of these activities through blog posts and tweets. These are the hashtags I will be using on Twitter (@perkinsy) over the next couple of weeks:

I realised I had not explained what digital humanities and GovHack were when I wrote this late last night so I quickly added an explanatory paragraph this morning.