The Women Who Coded the Future

It’s 1815 and the wife of romantic poet Lord Byron has just given birth to their daughter, Ada, in London. Her childhood would be routine, but over the following years, her mother’s decision to have her schooled in mathematics rather than poetry would have a profound effect on her daughter’s life.

Known as the countess of Lovelace, at 17 she met the inventor and mathematician Charles Babbage for the first time. Babbage began by showing her plans for the machine he was working on — a machine that, in theory, would be able to perform complex mathematical equations. Lovelace was intrigued, inspired and understood clearly the concept of taking an instruction set and loading it into a machine. Proving her in-depth knowledge she took these ideas a step further by showing how it was possible to programme a highly complex set of Bernoulli numbers into the machine.

Ada Lovelace

It was the work of Lovelace and Babbage that originated the idea of the programmable computer. Lovelace even saw a future where it would be possible for a computer to do anything that could be done logically — not just mathematics. Babbage’s machine was never built but it was his and Lovelace’s work that would be key to those involved in building the first computer over a century later.

One hundred years on, Jean Jennings Bartik finds herself replying to an ad to work on the ENIAC, one of the world’s first fully electronic general-purpose machines. In an article by All Tech Considered, she recalls having no idea what the ENIAC was but that she knew she would rather be working on that than doing mathematical equations by hand.

Jean Jennings Bartik (left) and Fran Bilas (right) operate ENIAC’s main control panel

She became one of six female mathematicians who created programmes for the ENIAC project. In his book The Innovators, Walter Isaacson recalls that men of that time were more interested in building hardware, doing the circuits and figuring out the machinery. This, coupled with the fact that there were a lot of very good female mathematicians at the time, led many women into programming.

The women from the ENIAC team later moved to work on one of the first commercial computers — the UNIVAC. Here they teamed up with Grace Hopper. Hopper worked for the navy reserve during the war and had just made a breakthrough by discovering a way to programme computers using words rather than numbers. But only a few decades later when Hopper turned 79, the number of women in computer science was beginning to drop. In a recent episode of Planet Money, producer Steve Henn tries to get to the bottom of when and why women stopped coding. And he finds a small, but important clue.

1984 in the US was a time when small computers started appearing in people’s homes. These computers were often sold like toys. And just like most toys, there was a gender preference. It’s speculated that marketers saw boys as being more likely to want their product and thus began a trend where advertisements for PCs were very much targeted at them. Computers were more likely to be bought for boys and boys became more familiar with them for this reason. The question is that if more girls had been bought computers would this trend of mostly male programmers still be the norm?

This question brings us to Sarah Allen. She was the sole female programmer that led the team who created flash video — the dominant video streaming technology on the net. Her mother was one of the first women to sell the Apple II and Sarah’s introduction to the computer came when her mother brought one home one evening after work. Sarah sat down, read the manual and started to write simple programmes.

This early introduction to computer programming at a time when boys were the assumed target audience does show that the opportunity Sarah Allen was given to work and play with computers while she was younger was very influential. It shaped a huge part of her life and her future career and Allen currently works for Blazing Cloud — the mobile software development company she founded.

Unfortunately, in many pictures of those first female programmers, their names do not appear alongside the photo. Sarah’s hope for today is that by making women in the field more visible to eachother it will help young women see that there is a path for them in one of the fastest growing professions in the world.

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