The First Computer Programmers Were Women

“Ought not every woman, like every man, to follow the bent of her own talents?” —Anne Louise Germaine de Stael, Corinne

In A Nutshell

In today’s universities, computer science course work is statistically dominated by men. However, the study of computing and automated arithmetic has not always been so male-dominated. In fact, the person regarded as the “world’s first programmer” was Ada Lovelace (pictured above), the daughter of writer Lord Byron. Her contributions included designing an algorithm for execution on a theoretical adding machine.

The Whole Bushel

The idea of a mechanical device to compute arithmetic faster than the human brain’s capability was once a dream. Nowadays, it’s a forgotten feature of a device we all carry in our pockets. However, it is an unfortunately buried fact that many of the pioneers in automated computing were women. Another entry in the long list of things women accomplished but lack recognition for due to historical (and indeed modern-day) sexism.

In the early days, most of what we would now call “computer science” was all theoretical. With electricity still in its early days of adoption, the capacity for mechanical devices to perform computations wasn’t quite there. Few would have imagined that machines would soon have the capability to perform computations independently, rather than aiding a human like an abacus would.

One of the earliest ideas for a computing device was Charles Babbage’s adding machine. Mainly a conceptual device, it fell to Ada Lovelace, daughter of the great writer Lord Byron, to present a potential algorithm to run on this adding machine in a lecture. She was chosen for her mathematical ability, making her an early pioneer of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. Her work with Babbage also grants her the honor of being considered the first programmer. The modern programming language ADA is named after her, though her recognition seems to be minimal, considering her place as the first computer programmer.

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Later, in World War II, when computing became more and more important in regard to code-breaking and code-making, groups of brilliant women skilled in mathematics were used to calculate various tasks, which could be written into algorithms and eventually programmed into early, vacuum-tube computers. However, history scorned many of these women due to an unfortunate tradition of sexism and discrimination. They were not even invited to a celebratory dinner following their work.

Even the more modern concept of wireless data transmission is a creation in part by a forgotten woman, Hedy Lamarr, who patented the concept of wireless signal cryptography, meaning that signals intercepted by malicious individuals could not be deciphered, making transmissions between distant individuals much safer and more secure. These advances are considered to be the backbone of modern telecommunications, but little credit or recognition was given to these ladies in their lifetimes.

Women in STEM fields are certainly present, though far too often their work seems to be buried or the credit stolen. Currently, the wage gap between men and women in STEM fields is quite large, and women are less likely to be hired for a position in the first place. We can only hope that this is something that will soon change.

Show Me The Proof

CNN: Rediscovering WWII’s female ‘computers’
San Diego Supercomputer Center: Ada Lovelace
Famous Women Inventors: Hedy Lamarr
US News & World Report: Minorities, Women Still Underrepresented in STEM Fields, Study Finds

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