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

Singapore’s Education History on Display

The building housing Singapore's Ministry of Education Heritage Centre

Singapore’s Ministry of Education Heritage Centre

On the second day I was in Singapore I left the bus and became lost. My phone was low on batteries and my GPS was not working properly. I trudged off in the direction I thought I should be going and found myself walking through a large HDB housing complex.

Getting lost on foot in a new place is a good thing. My family is not convinced about this, but that is their loss. Losing one’s way in a new place is a wonderful way to discover things that you may not ordinarily encounter.

Behind the HDB (public housing) complex I discovered Singapore’s education museum – the Ministry of Education Heritage Centre. This museum does not make the lists of museums that tourists are urged to visit so if I hadn’t become lost I may have missed it. Not many people would be excited by this but I have a background in education history so I made a mental note to visit it once I knew a bit more of Singapore’s general history.

Last week I visited the Heritage Centre with a friend of mine, Betty Wee, who is a retired Singaporean primary school teacher. The first section starts with the point where most accounts of Singaporean history start, Sir Stamford Raffles and the early nineteenth century. The first thing that visitors are informed about is Raffles’ vision for a Malayan college in Singapore which he was unable to establish before he left the island in 1824. The college was opened as a primary school in 1837.

However, the exhibition then notes that formal Malay education started well before Europeans arrived in the region. The visitor is told that this was mostly of a religious nature but aside from this there was very little detail. Perhaps the historical records have disappeared? Continue reading

Birthday of Literary Luminaries – Miles Franklin, Katherine Mansfield, Hannah Arendt,

Drawing of a woman in early 19thC dress carrying a suitcase approaching a home with extensive verandahs.

Google Doodle in honour of Miles Franklin, 14/10/2014.

Today, 14th October, marks the birth dates of three literary luminaries of the twentieth century – Miles Franklin, Katherine Mansfield and Hannah Arendt. These three women have made a big impact on western cultural life and thought and continue to do so.

Miles Franklin’s, novel, My Brilliant Career, has a secure place in Australia’s literary canon. This is extraordinary for a book written by a woman, first published in 1901 and coming from the pen of a twenty-one year old. Miles Franklin threw herself into life and writing, taking herself off to live in the United States before World War I, moving to England, nursing soldiers in dangerous circumstances in Macedonia before moving back to Australia. In the words of her biographer, “Miles was no wimp”. She did not make her fortune but through frugal living she conceived and endowed Australia’s premier literary award through her will. Continue reading

Review: Paint me Black by Claire Henty-Gebert

Book cover of Paint Me Black

Paint Me Black by Claire Henty-Gebert (Aboriginal Studies Press: Canberra, 2005).

One day I was reading brief accounts in the newspaper written by some people who were over one hundred years old.  And there she was, Margaret Somerville, the link to the book Paint Me Black, that was waiting on my bedroom floor to be read.

I was a missionary, I went to Croker Island, just off Darwin, and was a cottage mother at a home for part-Aboriginal children. The government had asked the church to take over care of these children. I’d been up there a few months when Darwin was bombed and then we had to be evacuated. The government and the church worked together to get us to Otford, a [then] campsite on the NSW south coast. It took six weeks to get all 95 children there. We spent four years at Otford and once the war was over,  I was the only staff member that went back to Croker Island. I was there for  24 years.

Sydney Morning Herald, 4 March 2013.

Claire Henty-Gebert was one of those children evacuated from Croker Island under the care of Margaret Somerville and her fellow missionaries.  Henty-Gebert’s memoir, Paint Me Black, is an absorbing read.  The clarity of her language and the power of her story engrossed me in this book. She has an amazing story to tell.

Henty-Gebert’s mother was Aboriginal and her father was white.  She was born sometime in the 1920s in a remote part of the Northern Territory.  Along with thousands of children like her she was removed from her Aboriginal family at a young age. Continue reading