In 1833, Lady Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, became the first computer programmer when she created a machine for computing called the Analytical Engine. Her partner, Charles Babbage, designed the hardware, while Lovelace focused on the machine’s inner workings or what we now call “software.” Bringing the machine to its absolute limit, Lovelace published the first computer algorithm in 1843.
Lovelace’s legacy would continue into the 20th century, as women entered the workforce. While men were busy fighting WWII, a group of female computer scientists, including Betty Holberton, Kay McNulty, Marlyn Wescoff, Ruth Lichterman, Fran Bilas and Betty Jean Jennings programmed the ENIAC, one of the first general purpose computers. Although they were called “subprofessionals” by their peers and “refrigerator girls” by historians, Hoberton and her team used ENIAC to make crucial calculations on the trajectory of ballistic missiles for the US and its allies.
The military would give rise to another great coder when Grace Hopper, a professor and computer scientist, joined the navy reserve and developed one of the earliest programming languages, COBOL. Hopper went on to create the first compiler, a device for synthesizing written language into code. By the end of her career, she had risen to the rank of rear admiral and even got a US destroyer named after her.
In the 1980’s women’s participation in coding suddenly dropped. While the reason is unknown, Sara Kiesler, a social scientist, believes the advent of personal computers was chiefly responsible. Kiesler argues that when computers entered the home, parents made them the domain of boys and not girls. The culture surrounding tech became male-dominated and many women decided to opt out of the field completely. Female participation in programming was cut in half, and today only 18 percent of computer science graduates are women.
If you have a daughter or niece this Women’s History Month, encourage their interest in computers! Tell them that a career in coding is a girl thing too and that they can make history!
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