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Women at the dawn of the computer age

Revisiting the history of computer science

When people think of a computer programmer, many picture a man, usually a bespectacled “nerd” type staring at a computer screen. Even though this description is reductive and generalizes a field that encompasses all types of men (and women), it’s prevalent enough that many people think computer science is historically a guy thing.  What few people know is that women were key players in the computer’s history.

Have you heard of Ada Lovelace? Probably not. Born in 1815, Ada was the poet Lord Byron’s only child with his wife Anne Isabella Milbanke. She never knew her father due to her parent’s acrimonious divorce. Her mother, convinced that Lord Byron was immoral and insane, had Ada rigorously educated in mathematics and science in an attempt to root out any potential insanity that Byron might have passed down to his daughter. It was during this time that Ada’s abilities in mathematics flourished.

She remained heavily involved in mathematics as an adult and worked with Charles Babbage on the development of the analytical engine. The analytical engine was a mechanical computer which was the first conceptually designed general purpose computer. Babbage was never able to build his engine due to funding constraints, but Lovelace’s notes during her work with Babbage explained how the analytical engine worked. She developed the algorithm to make the machine functional – the first algorithm ever developed.  It is also considered the first computer program ever written. As a result, Ada Lovelace is widely considered to be the first computer programmer in history.

Women were also among the first modern-day programmers. The term “computer” originally meant human computers – people who would compute complex mathematical problems by hand before electronic computers were developed. During World War II, human computers were employed  by the U.S. government to work on top secret projects such as the Manhattan Project and ballistic missile trajectory calculations. The majority of these computers were highly educated women, many with PhDs in mathematics and physics. Six women computers from the ballistic missile trajectory group at Penn State were recruited to build the program for ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) – the first electronic general purpose computer. As a result of the influence of the women involved with ENIAC and other women like them, in the 1940s and 1950s computer programming was considered a woman’s job. Back when employment advertisements were gender segregated, computer programming jobs were advertised in the sections listing employment for females.

So this information begs the question: why haven’t we heard about these women? In the case of the ENIAC programmers, their involvement with the project was largely unrecognized until the recent past. Photos exist of the women programmers working on ENIAC; however, for over fifty years the public was told that they were “Refrigerator Ladies” – female models paid to pose with the machine. The male engineers involved with ENIAC became famous whereas the female programmers weren’t even invited to the celebratory dinner after the successful launch of the machine.

Women have been involved with the development of historically important technology, but we don’t learn about them. As a result, we have an incomplete knowledge of our own history, and in the case of computer science, our preconceived notions of what kind of work is historically male or female is skewed. What was originally considered a woman’s world is now – at least in the public consciousness – a man’s. So when we picture a computer programmer, instead of that nerdy guy, we should try to picture Ada Lovelace or the “Refrigerator Ladies.” They’ve been ignored long enough and deserve the recognition. And frankly, they were there first.

For more information on females in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields, visit Ada Lovelace Day is celebrated on October 16 and aims to raise the profiles of women in STEM fields.