WOMENAID INTERNATIONAL

a Twentieth century Tribute to 
a Nineteenth Century Pioneer... 

 Ada, Countess of Lovelace (1815 -1853)

Ada, Countess of Lovelace, had a brief but brilliant life, was the only legitimate child of Lord Byron.  Unfortunately she had a wretched childhood due largely to her highly intelligent but control-obsessed, dominating mother.  At eight years of age she was evidencing the same precocious mathematical skills as her mother, Annabel, who incidentally was an extremely wealthy woman in her own right.  

Launched in London society, and due to inherit great wealth, Ada discovered she was in great demand and she fully participated in the social whirl.  London was 'mad' about mechanical toys and devices and Charles Babbage was exhibiting his 'Difference Engine' in an effort to raise funds to develop his work.  Ada was fascinated by the machine's ability to produce a single series of numbers and then suddenly switch to a new series.  

Her mathematical fame dates from 1842 when she was invited to translate a mathematical paper by Luigi Menabrea on the second and more complex machine, the 'Analytical Engine'.  This machine was designed to perform various mathematical functions with a single mechanism

Ada was bold enough to expand on his paper and raised questions which pointed to the new concept of a geometry in three dimensions.  This, together with her recognition of the importance of repeatability in experiments, led to her greater recognition by scientific colleagues.  She assisted Babbage and wrote a memoir containing several programmes for his 'Analytical Engine'; this has led to her being regarded by some as the world's first computer programmer.  Charles Babbage was fascinated by her quicksilver mind and called her the 'enchantress of numbers'.  Sadly, in 1853, at only thirty-seven years of age she died of cancer of the womb.

A twentieth century tribute was paid in 1980 when the programming language controlling America's military systems was called ADA in recognition of her pioneering mathematical work. 

 

NB: The computer age might have got under way in the reign of Queen Victoria if then British Prime Minister, Disraeli, had not refused to commit more public money to Charles Babbages' projects.

OTHER WOMEN PIONEERS IN THE 

COMPUTER INDUSTRY

Historically, the creation and development of the computer industry was dominated by men.  There were nevertheless a few women pioneers in this field, for example: 

Edith Clarke (1883-1959) 
Edith Clarke filed a patent for a "graphical calculator" and contributed to simplifying and reducing the time spent in laborious calculations in solving problems in the design and operation of electrical power systems. 

Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992) 
Hopper was called "Amazing Grace" because of her outstanding achievement in the computer field.  One of her contributions is the invention of COBOL, the first user-friendly business software program, which is still in use.   

Grace Murray Hopper, born on December 9, 1906 in New York City, was one of the great visionary pioneers of computer science and software engineering.  By the time she died in 1992 many in the computer industry considered her to be the world's most famous programmer and her outstanding contributions to computer science benefited academia, industry, and the military.  Her work spanned programming languages, software development concepts, compiler verification, and data processing.  Her early recognition of the potential for commercial applications of computers, and her leadership and perseverance in making this vision a reality, paved the way for modern data processing.

Graduating from Vassar College with a BA in mathematics and physics she joined the Vassar faculty in 1928.  While teaching at Vassar, she earned an MA in mathematics at Yale University, followed in 1934 by a PhD - a rare accomplishment at the time.  A remarkable woman she believed that "we've always done it that way" was not necessarily a good reason to continue to do so.

She married Vincent Foster Hopper in 1930 and remained at Vassar as an associate professor until 1943, when she resigned to join the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service). Commissioned as a lieutenant, she was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University, where she worked at Harvard's Cruft Laboratories on the Mark series of computers. She became the third person to program the Mark I and subsequently received the Naval Ordnance Development Award for her pioneering applications programming success on the Mark I, Mark II, and Mark III computers.

After the war she went on to work as a researcher and senior mathematician at the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corp. and the Sperry Corporation.  As Director of Automatic Programming, in 1952 she published the first paper on compilers one of her best known contributions to computing.  The compiler being an intermediate programme that translates English language instructions into the language of the target computer.  Until then all programming used assembler  language. Grace Hopper's vision was the creation of a programming language closer to ordinary language so that it could be used by non-technical people conceptualising the computer would be used more widely if there were tools that were both programmer-friendly and application-friendly.  Her work on compilers and on making machines understand ordinary language instructions led to the development of COBAL, the business language.  Much of her work provided the foundations of digital computing such as subroutines, formula translation, code optimization and symbolic manipulation.  During her lifetime she published over fifty papers on programming languages and software.

In 1967 she was called back into active duty with the Navy to oversee the US Navy's standardisation of COBOL and other languages.  In 1985 she was promoted to rear admiral.  Upon her retirement from the Navy in 1986 she immediately became a senior consultant to Digital Equipment Corporation, remaining there for several years, working well into her eighties.  

Admiral Hopper received recognition for her accomplishments but always felt her greatest contribution had been "all the young people I've trained."   In 1971, the Sperry Corporation initiated an annual award in her name to honour young computer professionals for their significant contributions to computer science. In 1973, she became the first woman of any nationality to be made a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society.

She died in her sleep in Arlington, Virginia on January 1, 1992 and was buried with full Naval honours at Arlington National Cemetery.

WOMEN AND THE NET  ~  WOMEN OF THE WORLD AWARDS  ~  HOME

WOMENAID INTERNATIONAL  

3 WHITEHALL COURT  LONDON SW1A 2EL

TEL:  +44 (0) 20 7839 1790    FAX: +44 (0) 20 7839 2929 

E-MAIL: womenaid@womenaid.org           Reg. Charity No. 299224

 

copyright WAI 2000