Women and Computers

A nice piece in The Washington Post discusses the role of women in the early days of modern computer programming. Women programmers were especially prominent in the 1960s and early 1970s, prompting a discussion of these “Computer Girls” in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1967. (“It’s just like planning dinner. You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so it’s ready when you need it,” explained Admiral Grace Hopper [!] to the magazine’s mostly female readership.)

According to the piece, in the late 1970s the percentage of women studying computer science was 25%; about the same figure that is being lauded these days as a great improvement in the more dismal numbers in the 90s and 00s. The author goes on to discuss some of the reasons for these figures.

What’s especially odd (and not discussed in the article) is that one of the pioneers in computer programming, in the 19th century, was Ada Lovelace. The only legitimate child of the poet Byron, Lovelace was a gifted mathematician (though perhaps overly-impressed with her talents) who collaborated with Charles Babbage in publicizing his Analytical Engine, the first prototype of a general purpose computing machine. Lovelace published the only description in English of Babbage’s invention. She also seemed to understand clearly the value of the machine as a truly general symbol manipulator. Lovelace explained that

“Many persons…imagine that because the business of the Engine is to give its results in numerical notation, the nature of its processes must consequently be arithmetical and numerical, rather than algebraic and analytical. This is an error. The engine can arrange and combine its numerical quantities exactly as if they were letters or any other general symbols….”

Lovelace even speculated that the Analytical Engine could be made to compose music. This was precisely the image of a computer that would be formalized by Alan Turing in the 1930s: the notion of a computer as a general purpose symbol manipulator rather than a number cruncher.

Lovelace and Babbage also wrote the first “computer program,” a method for making the Analytical Engine calculate the Bernoulli numbers.

The history of women and computing goes back even further than Ada Lovelace, however. The word “computer” was originally assigned to the people who would do the multiple, rote calculations required for mathematical tables (of logarithms, actuarial statistics, etc.) in the days before machines took over that task. Many of these computers were women, often schoolteachers, who would do the calculations at home for extra money.

If the computer industry could figure out how to interest and retain young women in the computing field, not only would they gain the brainpower of many more computer scientists, but they would be honoring the legacy of the early computers, and one of the early visionaries of computing machines.


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About the Author

Laura J. Snyder, Ph.D., is a science historian, philosopher and writer whose most recent book, The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends who Transformed Science and Changed the World, was an Official Selection of the TED Book Club, a Scientific American Notable Book, and winner of the 2011 Royal Institution of Australia Poll for Favorite Science Book. It was also named an "Outstanding Academic Title" in history of science and technology by the American Library Association. Snyder is Professor of Philosophy at St. John's University in New York City and writes frequently about science and ideas for The Wall Street Journal. She is a Fulbright Scholar, a Life Member of Clare Hall College, Cambridge, and Past President of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science.

 She is currently working on a book about how new optical technologies in the 17th century revolutionized not only science, but also art and the rest of culture. Follow Laura Snyder on Twitter and Facebook.

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