The League of Extraordinary Women Coders

Have you seen the Hollywood Sci-Fi thriller, Matrix? If you are a millennial or a Gen-Z, you probably would have. If not, then please use the power of the subscription-based video streaming services and watch it as soon as possible. The film would introduce you to Neo, Trinity, and of course, many coding languages, which are likely to go over your head unless you are a computer geek. However, the twist in the tail is, we are not discussing the film in this article; in fact, it is an attempt to pay tribute to the women in coding.

Let’s not forget that the first computer programmer was indeed a woman. Shocked? Don’t be as we highlight and learn more about some women coders who have been the epitome of computer programming

To understand coding further, let’s go back to the 1840s. Ada Lovelace, a mathematician, and writer, is considered the first computer programmer. Charles Babbage called Lovelace the “enchantress of numbers.” Babbage is regarded by many as the father of computer. Coding or computer programming is the methodology of communicating with computers. In simpler terms, coding is a language that computers understand. Programming involves many activities such as analysis, generating algorithms, profiling algorithm’s accuracy and resource consumption, and implementation of algorithms.

The computer has got its due, men programmers have got theirs, but have we ever thought about the “queens” who achieved many firsts in computer programming? It is appropriate to glorify them for their extraordinary achievements over the years.

Augusta Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)

Augusta Ada Lovelace is widely known as the first woman programmer. Ada Lovelace was a mathematician and writer and worked with Charles Babbage on his calculating machines – to add, subtract, multiply and divide.

Ada Lovcelace wrote notes in 1843 on how people could use letters, symbols, and numbers to command computers to complete complex calculations. Her notes were published in an English science journal the same year.

The US Department of Defense paid its tribute in the 1980s by naming a computer language after her, calling it “Ada.”

Grace Hopper (1906-1992)

Grace Hopper coined the term “computer bug” when she was working with the Mark II computer. Legendary television talk show host David Letterman describes Hopper as the ‘Queen of software.’

She believed computers didn’t understand English and designed a programming language FLOW-MATIC which later helped develop COBOL (Common Business Orientated Language) in 1959. COBOL is used in business, finance, and administrative systems for companies.

Joan Clarke (1917-1996)

‘Imitation Game’ was a brilliant film, not because Benedict Cumberbatch dominated the screenplay, but how Joan Clarke and Alan Turing worked together to break the German Enigma ciphers during World War II. Clarke, Turing, and others made one of the earliest computers, known as Bombes, to decipher German codes. It is widely believed that their game-changing efforts cut short the war by two years.

Mary Jackson (1921-2005)

You know the importance of a personality when their life’s work is documented in a film. Mary Jackson was one such figure! The movie ‘Hidden Figures’ celebrates a set of African-American women coders who played a crucial role in the 1960s in America’s attempt to be the first to reach space.

Mary Jackson, who earned the reputation of ‘human-computer,’ was a mathematician and an aerospace engineer. Jackson was, in fact, the first black female engineer at NASA and later worked on a program to encourage women in the sciences.

Annie Easley (1933-2011)

“I just have my own attitude. I’m out here to get the job done, and I knew I had the ability to do it, and that’s where my focus was.”

That’s Annie Easley for you!

Easley read a newspaper article about twin sisters working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1955. That’s when she fell in love with computers. A day later, she applied for a job at the space agency, and two weeks later, Easley was working as a “human computer,” doing computations for researchers <>.

Easley, considered a frontiersperson in coding, adapted to computers and soon learned to program based on Fortran and the SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) language.

Jean E. Sammet (1928-2017)

Jean E. Sammet wrote the first computer program for symbolic manipulation of mathematical formulas, called FORMAC, in 1961.

Jean Sammet’s story is nothing short of a fictional character. In 1956, while working with Sperry Gyroscope analyzing torpedo trajectories from submarines, her manager’s boss asked her she knew about the new computer the company was building.

“I said, ‘Yes, but I don’t know anything more,'” Sammet said, narrating the story during a talk at Mount Holyoke College in 2016. “And he said, ‘Do you want to be our programmer?’ And I said, ‘What’s a programmer?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, but I know we need one.'”  

In 1959, Sammet and other programmers designed COBOL, which is used even today. A couple of years later, Sammet directed the development of FORMAC while working with IBM. In 1965, Sammet led the development of Ada programming language.

Frances Allen (1932-2020)

Frances Allen was an American computer scientist known for her path-breaking work optimizing compilers. Allen became the first woman to be an IBM Fellow, and in 2006 she was the first woman to be honoured with the Turing Award. The awards and accolades don’t stop here as she was the recipient of the IEEE Computer Society Charles Babbage Award and the Ada Lovelace Award from the Association of Women in Computing. A Ph.D. IBM Fellowship Award was also started in her honour.

Margaret Hamilton (Born 1936)

Margaret Hamilton was among the programmers to code for the first portable computer, and as a result, her work proved to be instrumental. As a director of software engineering for the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory project Apollo 11 mission, Hamilton and her team programmed a code that made the first moon landing possible.

However, it wasn’t easy as there were a lot of barriers along the road.

“Her code got humans on the moon,” wrote Wired in a moving tribute to Hamilton and her team.

“When I first got into it, nobody knew what it was that we were doing. It was like the Wild West. There was no course in it. They didn’t teach it,” Hamilton told Wired in an interview.

The ENIAC Women Coders

Fran Bilas, Betty Jennings, Ruth Lichterman, Kay McNulty, Betty Snyder, and Marlyn Wescoff were the six women coders who developed the first all-electronic, programmable computer in 1945. ENIAC, Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, was the first digital computer, created as a secret American project in 1945 during World War II. The women of the highest order to build a computer to calculate the artillery trajectories during the war.

The computer was 1,000 times faster than other developed machines during the second world war and 2,400 times quicker than a human brain for calculating the trajectory. The machine stood 8 feet tall and 80 feet wide.

At times, it seems recognizing women for their achievements becomes a tough pill to swallow for a dominant male society. The women that mattered the most were not invited for the demonstration of ENIAC after the war in 1946.

Women have been a vital cog in computing. Such genius women coded many programs that give us access to uninterrupted services even today. Let’s not hesitate to recognize such talent and continue to celebrate the women in our society. May the women not only in the field of technology but science, arts, culture, sports, and politics continue to inspire more ladies for generations to come.

It’s not only about praising and applauding the achievements of women. It was a high time talent solution, and IT staffing agencies opened more and newer opportunities to hire women in the IT sector, computer science, engineering, and other fields.

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