Editor’s Note: The post today comes from my blog-quiet but ever-present wife, Suzanne. An engineer and business strategist by training, she has an uncanny ability to not only envision societal changes enabled by new technologies, and figure out the implications for her business clients (including yours truly), but to never forget the little details that keep our lives functional on a daily basis. I therefore dedicate today’s blog to Suzanne, Ada Lovelace, and all the other sung and unsung achievements of women in technology and science.
I know there have been any number of magnificent women who have managed to change the course of history through their achievements in technology and science. I also, sadly, know I am woefully ignorant of far too many of them. Raised with little to no awareness that there might actually be people who believed women were not as smart or capable as men, studying pioneering women in my chosen fields was not something I actively felt the need to do. I just assumed that as the doors of opportunity started to open to women, the math would take care of itself, and the ranks of all professions would become gender-balanced. I have since become older, wiser, and perhaps a bit more cynical as I recognize some of the remaining structural and institutional barriers. But this column is not about me, nor about how far we still have to go, but about those women who came before who enabled me to grow up thinking all things were possible.
Grace Murray Hopper, like so many women of her generation, threw themselves into work to help win World War II. But she was no typical Rosie the Riveter. Born in 1906 in New York City, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar with a bachelor’s in math and physics in 1928, and from Yale with a Master’s in 1930 and a PhD in 1934. By 1941 she was an associate professor in math at Vassar, but in 1943 took a leave of absence to volunteer in the US Navy Reserve as part of the WAVES. Assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard, she was one of the first programmers of the Mark I computer. This work led to her involvement with the development of the UNIVAC, her conceptualization of the idea of machine-independent programming languages, her development of the first compiler, and the infamous coining of the term computer “bug” when she discovered the reason the computer (then a large room full of vacuum tubes) was not functioning was a dead moth (see wikipedia for a photo). While turned down for transfer to the regular Navy (at 38, she was considered too old), she spent most of her working life in the Reserves, despite several short-lived attempts to retire in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Her list of accomplishments and awards is long; her accolades many.
I was lucky enough to hear her speak in the mid 1980’s at the national conference of the Society of Women Engineers. As one of a handful of computer science majors at the time, I should have been aware of her work. I wasn’t. I knew the names of Brian Kernighan and Dennis Ritchie as if they were family members, we all admired the work of Tom Watson and giggled about his alleged quotation about the size of the worldwide market for computers (5), the Steves (Wozniak & Jobs) and Bill Joy were considered gods, and Bill Gates was highly respected for the company he was building. But until I saw her name on the keynote address, I hadn’t known about the accomplishments of Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper. While I can’t remember, all these years later, exactly what she told this room full of women, to this day I remember being in complete awe of what she did during a time when women were told their patriotic duty was to resign their jobs, go back to the kitchen, and let the returning men have the good jobs. And to this day, I can’t help but notice the respect in the voices of the men who speak of her accomplishments. So thank you, Amazing Grace, for all you did. And thank you to Suw Charman-Anderson, the founder of Ada Lovelace Day, for getting us to stop and remember those who came before.
BTW, for those of you wondering about a biblio connection, there are several. Grace Hopper, needless to say, published important scholarly works in her own right. Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer algorithm/program for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine and translated Luigi Menabrea’s memoir on the engine. Sadly, she died at the tender age of 36. And finally, another famous bibliophile, Lord Byron, had the privilege of being Ada’s largely absent father (apparently, he was bitterly disappointed she was not a boy – little could he know what she would become).