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

Civil Rights, History, Now

The right to vote has been a struggle the world over. Agitation for the right to participate in the election of the government is a common them in the history of many nations. Associated with the right to vote are a host of related rights: the right to equal access to public venues, the right to equal access to education, to equal treatment by the law…

In recent weeks there have been many fiftieth anniversaries of momentous events of the Civil Rights era. The Civil Rights movement had its heart in the United States but pulsed throughout the world. Recently in Australia the fiftieth anniversary of the ‘Student Action for Aborigines’ freedom ride was marked by the original freedom riders revisiting the places in country New South Wales where in 1965 they had shone the spotlight on how Aboriginal people were barred from accessing public venues. Aboriginal people had already gained the right to vote in federal elections in 1962, but it was not until the end of 1965 that Queensland became the last state to granted Australia’s indigenous people the right to vote in state elections.

Nearly two weeks ago thousands of people marched across a bridge in Selma, Alabama to mark the anniversary of ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1965. It had been fifty years since an orderly group of people had marched across the same bridge in their quest for African-Americans in that locality to be allowed to vote. At this bridge they were repelled by police who charged with batons, tear gas and horses. Broadcast live nation-wide, this unprovoked attack by police galvanised the nation and contributed to the passing of the Voting Rights Act by Congress.

At the foot of the same bridge two weeks ago, President Obama’s oratorical powers were unleashed. It was a speech replete with a rhetoric that spoke truth and was delivered with the rhythm, the pauses, the softness, crescendos and diminuendos that are rarely heard from public speakers in Australia.

President Obama’s speech had depth of content. It was a lesson on how to use history to meet the needs of society today. Throughout the speech President Obama reiterated the exceptional nature of the United States, yet as pointed out on the ABC, ‘The Drum’ website, most of his comments are applicable elsewhere in the world. Obama had pertinent things to say about drawing on history to inspire change today. Before I highlight these passages take the time to view his entire speech via the video above. Continue reading

The Dream of a Century: The Griffins in Australia’s capital

colour map of the proposed city of Canberra.

Preliminary plan of Canberra by Walter Burley Griffin, 1914. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

The capital city of Australia is a twentieth century creation.  It emerged from a paddock in rural New South Wales one hundred years ago.  On 12th March 1913 Lady Denman, the wife of Australia’s Governor-General, stood on the newly laid foundation stones and announced the name of the city to be – Canberra.

The city had already been born by the time the crowd gathered in the empty paddock to hear its chosen name.  The ideas for the built structures had flowed from the minds of American architect Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin in Chicago over fifteen thousand kilometres away.  In turn their design was indebted to the ancient landscape on which it was to be built and the indigenous people who nurtured that environment and from whose language the name of the city was derived.

This year is the centenary of the founding of Canberra.  It is also the year when one of our daughters moved to Canberra so we will be visiting it more often than we usually do.  Last month we fitted in a visit to the National Library where I saw their exhibition, ‘The Dream of a Century: The Griffins in Australia’s Capital’. Continue reading

Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography by Jill Roe

Cover of Stella Milses Franklin: A Biography

Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography by Jill Roe, Harper Collins, 2010.

There are times when a book creeps up on a reader, nudging itself forward, saying ‘read me’.  Jill Roe’s biography of Miles Franklin is one of those books.  Over the last few years I came across references to this book in many other histories that I read.  Then a couple of months ago I was doing some research assistant work and had to borrow it in order to check some page numbers. I held it in my hands and realised that I must do now what I should have done a couple of years ago.  I started reading.

The first three chapters tell the tale of the childhood and adolescence of a precocious girl carrying the name Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin.  She grew up in country New South Wales and was first educated by a family tutor before attending one of the typical one-teacher schools that were dotted around the Australian bush at the time.

In her spare time Stella Franklin wrote.  When she completed the draft for a novel the twenty-year old author forwarded a manuscript to several people asking them to read it.  Stella Franklin was bold, a quality she exhibited throughout her life.  One of the people to whom she sent her manuscript was the popular writer, Henry Lawson.  He was taken by the book and while in England he found a publisher for it.   At the young age of twenty-one Stella became renowned as the author Miles Franklin when her novel, My Brilliant Career, was released.  Published in 1901 during the first year of the new nation of Australia, My Brilliant Career is now regarded as an Australian classic.

So there we have it.  The highlight of Miles Franklin’s writing career, the source of much of her fame is dealt with in less than one hundred pages.  Why did Jill Roe dedicate so many years to researching and writing this biography?  The answer sustains the rest of the book.  Miles Franklin was a dynamic, complex woman who was described by a contemporary as being “as paradoxical as a platypus”.  She eschewed the path expected of women into marriage.  She mixed with thinkers and activists, gravitating towards those who were making a difference in the world.  She encouraged many writers and was passionate about Australian writing at a time when it was struggling to be heard.  In her life we can recognise her as one of our contemporaries yet at the same time this biography is punctuated by reminders that she was definitely a woman of her times. Continue reading

Book Review – Fight for Liberty and Freedom: The origins of Australian Aboriginal activism

Book cover of John Maynard's 'Fight for Liberty and Freedom'

Fight for Liberty and Freedom: The origins of Australian Aboriginal activism, (Aboriginal Studies Press: Canberra, 2007).

If this country is to attain any sense of maturity it must first of all deal with its past and come to terms with it and, through that process, provide a platform where both Black and white can walk together to a shared future of hope, prosperity and equality.  Sadly, the whole debate has degenerated into an exercise of political and intellectual point scoring with little thought or compassion to the Aboriginal suffering in the past and the scars that impact and remain embedded in the Aboriginal psyche today.

John Maynard, p. 143.

Aboriginal historian, John Maynard, makes a telling point.  Knowing about and understanding the history of the people and place where we live is vital.  Without this it is too easy to treat people unjustly, with disrespect and with lack of compassion. A university degree is not required to learn this history.  Historical learning can be acquired by anyone through listening to others around us, asking questions and reading.  To my mind this is the purpose of Indigenous Literature Week which starts today.  It reminds us to sit down and listen to the indigenous people of wherever we may live.  John Maynard’s book, Fight for Liberty and Freedom is a good book for the general reader to learn more about an important part of twentieth century Australian history.

In this book John Maynard shares with us the story of a significant Aboriginal movement in the 1920s which protested against the removal of Aboriginal children from their families and evictions of Aboriginal farmers from the land they owned in New South Wales. An Aboriginal-led and managed organisation, the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA), drew on an extensive network of Aborigines throughout the state. This was quite a feat when considering the travel restrictions that authorities imposed on many Aborigines living on reserves and the determined opposition to AAPA activities by the NSW Aborigines Protection Board. Continue reading

Nearly There – Experiencing a Conference Online

Collage of twitter streams forming the letters "AHA" on a background of a photo of conference participants.

Just some of the thousands of tweets sent by participants of the recent American Historical Association conference. Credits at the end of this post.

Nearly a year ago I knew that this year’s conference organised by the American Historical Association would be exciting, but I also knew I would not be able to attend it.  In order to find out what had occurred at a conference like this in the past I would have had to rely on talking to people who had attended and for publication of papers and accounts arising from the conference.  Someone like me would have missed out on hearing about nearly everything that occurred or learned about it months after the event.  Not any more:  blogs and twitter allowed me to hear about what was happening as it occurred or pretty soon after.  During the course of last weekend I was glued to my computer screen when other responsibilities and sleep allowed it, reading the tweets and blog posts that were pouring out of Chicago.  Over the last few days I have been reflecting on my  online conference experience.

Is social media a good substitute for attending a conference?  My experience this weekend has not led me to change my mind on this question. If there are a lot of sessions that interest you and people who you would like to meet, it is still much better to attend the conference in question if you can.  Keeping abreast of proceedings through social media is better than being off-line during an interesting conference but it is still very much a second-best option. Continue reading