Radia Perlman

Radia Perlman was born in 1951, in Portsmouth, Virginia. She’s well known for inventing the Spanning-Tree Protocol, which is at the heart of modern networking.

STP allows for multiple connections between network switches (or two ports on the same switch) without risking of exponential flooding of network packets. Without this technology, networking would be incredibly limited compared to how it is today.

Growing up, she enjoyed logic puzzles and found mathematics and science effortless and fascinating. Despite these qualities, she didn’t consider herself a typical engineer: the kind of person who liked to break and rebuild things. She also loved classical music and played the piano and french horn. She loved writing, composing music and art.

She concerned herself with getting good grades, though not because of any pressure from her parents to do so. This meant a lot of learning and memorising facts she thought she was likely to encounter in tests. She would get her mother to quiz her, and following a good result, immediately forget what she had memorised.

Though she loved writing, her quest for good grades drew her inexorably to mathematics and science. The determinism of knowing the right answer set her at ease, unlike the subjectivity of language grading.

Her father was a radar engineer, and her mother a programmer. Despite her mother’s profession, they never talked about programming. Instead they talked about literature and music.

Radia was first introduced to programming when a teacher arranged for a group of students to take a programming class at a local university. She initially felt uncomfortable, not conforming to a stereotypical engineer mindset. This discomfort proved prohibitive to her learning.

It wasn’t until she attended MIT that she learned to program. In 1971 she started a part-time programming job, writing system software (like debuggers).

This inspired her to design a programming language for younger children to learn. Her idea was to teach concepts similar to Logo, but with special input devices and care to avoid the same discomfort she had felt when she first attempted programming.

Logo is an educational programming language, designed in the 1960's. It’s mostly remembered for its use in Turtle drawing applications, though it was intended to model concepts relating to LISP.

Radia did many wonderful things to nurture the field of computer science. And on more than one occasion she has pointed out that being a woman has little to do with those things. She learned and grew in her own strength. She invented and taught by the brilliance of her own mind.

Yet the history books are sparse when it comes to the lives and achievements of women, in computer science and engineering.

I wonder why that is…


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