Know your history – STEM’s diverse roots
It’s time to finish our tech history series. This week, we close on a hot-button issue: diversity in tech. What can we learn from tech’s historical roots and how it has always been a field for women and other minorities… and how we can do better today.
Pop history has something of a Great Man problem and tech is no exception. In fact, that’s why the popular Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast has an entire Women in STEM tag with dozens of unsung historical heroines. Today, we’re closing on our tech history series with a closer look at some of the women who have helped shape our modern digital world.
Although women conservatively only make up about 25% of techies today, we’ve been here all along. (That number, by the way, is even worse for women of color.) Turn your textbooks to chapter 12; we’re going to do a deep dive into STEM’s diverse roots.
The first programmer
When you think of the first programmer, the first thing that should come to mind is fabulous hats. Indeed, Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, is credited as the first computer programmer and she had the hats to prove it.
The daughter of the dangerously poetical Lord George Byron, Ada Lovelace was raised to be a math whiz by a mother terrified she’d fall down the same paths as her father. Furnished with all of the best tutors in math and science, her mind turned analytical when she met Charles Babbage at a party in 1833.
Inspired by the idea, Ada Lovelace wrote the first computer science paper in 1843, publishing the first programming language for Babbage’s as-yet unbuilt Analytical Engine. That’s right; she designed a working programming language based on punch-cards, without ever seeing the computer in question. In fact, the London Science Museum finally built a working model of Babbage’s Analytical Engine… in 1991.
At the time, computers were seen as nothing but calculating machines. But Ada Lovelace believed that they could go beyond number-crunching, seeing that those numbers could represent other things, like letter or musical notes. In her 1843 paper, Ada Lovelace moved from calculation to computing.
However, she died tragically young at age 36 of uterine cancer. Who knows what she could have done with more time?
The first computers
Most modern developers know that the first computers referred to actual humans doing complex calculations. This term started in astronomy, as human computers plotted out celestial movements. Although women were generally excluded from this field, they began to enter the field in the 1860s.
The first notable group of women computers was put together at Harvard University under Edward Pickering. Unflatteringly called Pickering’s Harem, all of the computers working for Harvard Observatory by 1880 were women. (They were also paid half as much as a man.) This group of mathematicians included luminaries like Annie Jump Cannon, who developed the first stellar catalog and could classify three stars a minute.
Computing took a darker turn during World War 1 and World War 2, as human computers were used to help determine ballistics. Due to the draft and the scarcity of male labor during WW2, women were enlisted as computers for the Manhattan Project and NASA.
As electrical computers became more advanced, the human computers were recruited as programmers. In 1946, six young women became the world’s first professional programmers with ENIAC, the world’s first general purpose digital computer. Kay McNulty, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Ruth Lichterman, Betty Jean Jennings, and Fran Bilas created a program that could determine a ballistics trajectory – a differential calculus equation – in seconds. However, they remained unnamed when ENIAC went public and were largely forgotten.
NASA also hired human computers as well, including a number of black women. Katherine Johnson’s orbital mechanics calculations were crucial to the success of the US’ manned spaceflight. (John Glenn refused to fly unless Johnson herself confirmed the electrical computer’s numbers!) Dorothy Johnson headed the human computer pool; when NASA went electrical, she learned FORTRAN and headed that department too. Mary Johnson started in the segregated computing pool before becoming an aerospace engineer.
The first bug hunter
However, as computing continued, it stayed in the realm of the abstract. Coding was done in machine code, difficult to read and even harder to debug. That was all to change, thanks to Grace Hopper.
Originally a professor of mathematics at Vassar, Hopper repeatedly tried to enlist in the US Navy during WW2. Hopper was initially rejected for her small stature and advanced age, but that didn’t stop her. She got an exemption and went to work on the Mark 1 computer. She was even part of the team to come up with the concept of bugs after they found a moth fouling one of the wires inside of the Mark 1 computer.
After the war, Hopper later moved on to the UNIVAC team, where she got her brilliant idea: why couldn’t computer programmers just use English instead? Despite the naysayers on her team, Grace Hopper wrote the first English-like data processing language, FLOW-MATIC, and the first ever compiler in the early 1950s. Our entire field is based on work done by Grace Hopper.
FLOW-MATIC was used as the basis for COBOL, one of the founding languages of computer science. Although modern day developers might think COBOL as too verbose (after all, there are over 300 reserved words), this was a game changer for the field.
According to Hopper, “Manipulating symbols was fine for mathematicians but it was no good for data processors who were not symbol manipulators. Very few people are really symbol manipulators. If they are they become professional mathematicians, not data processors. It’s much easier for most people to write an English statement than it is to use symbols.”
Hopper spent the rest of her life working for the US Navy. Although Navy age-based regulations insisted she retire, Hopper was brought back again and again to serve her country. She finally made rear admiral and retired at the age of 79.
Women have always been a part of tech. Without women’s contributions to the field, you wouldn’t have wi-fi (Hedy Lamarr), software engineering (Margaret Hamilton), STP (Radia Perlman), and countless more. Their contributions may have been largely ignored, but they are truly the basis of our modern field.
We have spent the last twelve weeks looking back at some of the most foundational parts of our field. Women have been there the entire time and they’ll continue to keep developing, coding, inventing, and innovating.