A Secret History: Female Computing

Many women have actively participated in the development of computing and they deserve to be remembered.

Three members of the team led that worked on the ENIAC under Adele Katz (circa 1942-1945).

Three members of the team led that worked on the ENIAC under Adele Katz. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, c. 1942-1945 | Wikimedia | Public Domain

We have to go way back to the mid-nineteenth century to find computing pioneer Ada Lovelace, while in the very recent past we have the feminist hacker and activist Jude Milhon, founder of the cyberpunk movement. Along the way, many other women have actively participated in the development of computing, from Róza Péter, Grace Murray Hopper and Frances Elizabeth Allen to the team of talented young women led by Adele Katz. Even the glamorous actress Hedy Lamarr played a significant role in the inexorable scientific-technological revolution that is still taking us who knows where. These women deserve to be remembered, if only to verify that these days, fortunately for all of us, progress is the fruit of a joint effort.

Eudora Welty was an American writer born in Mississippi in the early twentieth century, who wrote books such as the Pulitzer Prize winning The Optimist’s Daughter, and numerous short stories that portray Southern life. One of these, ‘Why I Live at the PO’, fascinated University of Illinois software engineer Steve Dorner so much that he used the author’s name to baptise the email client Eudora, which was used on Apple and Microsoft operating systems, stored emails in mbox format, and even developed into a webmail version.

We are so used to moving in the shadow of male giants such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mr Facebook (that is, Mark Zuckerberg), that we can end up thinking women are barred from Silicon Valley. We could easily surmise that computers, including that wonderful invention known as the Internet, are the product of purely male minds belonging to those who –according to the lingering cliché– have greater powers of concentration and a better-developed left side of the brain, and thus better spatial and orientation skills (which is why women apparently can’t read maps). But Eudora is not the only the only sign of women’s contribution to that inspired alliance between software and hardware; just as there have been prominent women in the history of chemistry (Marie Curie), nuclear physics (Lise Meitner), genetics (Barbara McClintock) and electronic engineering (Edith Clarke), quite a number of women have left their mark in the gestation of digital life, even though their minority status has tended to make them invisible.

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), the woman considered to be the first computer programmer, also had links to the world of literature, given that she was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron –the same Lord Byron who wrote that it was easy to die for a woman but very difficult to live with one. Even though computers did not exist in her lifetime or for quite some time afterwards, the mathematician Ada Lovelace focused her work on the mechanical calculator, and she is credited with writing the first encoded algorithm intended to be processed by a machine (she suggested using perforated cards). This makes her a prominent figure in the history of computing. In a fitting tribute, in 1979 the United States Department of Defence named the programming language Ada after her.

Ada Lovelace‘s portrait, first programmer in the history of computers.

Ada Lovelace‘s portrait, first programmer in the history of computers. Autor: William Henry Mote, 1838. The Ada Picture Gallery | Public Domain

The century of computing

But along with other advances such as the elimination of pandemics (unfortunately only in the developed world) and the use of the automobile on a mass-scale (at the expense of increased pollution), the twentieth century has clearly been the century of computer engineering, which has enabled the current democratisation of the transmission of information, among other things. The first woman we find in twentieth century computing is Hungarian mathematician Rózsa Péter (1905-1977), who was one of the founders of recursion theory and ended up applying recursive functions to computers. A bit later, in the fifties, Navy officer Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992) was a pioneer in the use of electro-mechanical computers and later developed the programming language COBOL, which was targeted at novice users.

Also around the middle of the century, a small group of young women wearing tight cardigans and pin-up dresses helped bring to life history’s first-ever computer, which was called ENIAC and was publicly launched in 1946. The team was led by Adele Katz (1920-1946), who wrote the user manual, and the dynamic brigade consisted of Kay McNulty, Jean Bartik, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Frances Bilas and Ruth Teitelbaum, who were in their twenties at the time. Guided by Katz, whose married name was Adele Goldstine, they were the developers of the first software programmes.

And then there is the unforgettable Viennese Jewish actress Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000), who, during World War II, invented the precursor to the Wi-Fi technology that now is now used in most of the many screens that we share our lives with. An exceptionally talented telecommunications engineer, Lamarr may have been one of the most beautiful of Hollywood beauties, but she was also a passionate inventor. Which is why she invented, among other things, a secret communications system based on frequency hopping that was taken up by civil engineering from the eighties onwards: it became the foundation for the wireless communication that we now take for granted in our mobile phones and modems, not to mention GPS devices. Ironic, isn’t it? We women are accused of being unable to read maps, and we invented the GPS! We can take a moment to remember Lamarr each year on 9 November, which has been named Inventor’s Day in her honour. Maybe it should be Inventress Day!

It is also remarkable to learn that it was also a woman –with the burden of her right-hemisphere brain– who developed the world’s first word processor, although perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us given that women have always been attached to a sewing machine or, failing that, a typewriter. Evelyn Berezin (1925) was working at the Underwood Company when she created the first office computer in 1953, although it wasn’t until the revolutionary year of 1968 that she sketched out a programme that allowed users to store and edit texts. Meanwhile, Lynn Conway (1938), a transsexual who is Emeritus Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, focused on silicon chips and was part of the team responsible for the first superscalar computer in the sixties. Although, exotic as it may seem, the first person to earn a PhD in Computer Science in the mid-sixties was a nun, sister Mary Kenneth Keller (1914-1985), who went on to work in a laboratory that was usually reserved for men, where she contributed to developing BASIC programming language.

Once the foundations of computing had been laid and the race to speed up and improve computers began, more women started to join the sector. IBM researcher Frances Elizabeth Allen (1932), for example, was a member of the PTRAN team and a pioneer in the field of optimising compilers, and her work was dedicated to improving their performance. Her results were so good that she was made an IBM Fellow (the first woman to receive this honour) and won the prestigious, big-money Turing Award, which is considered the ‘Nobel Prize of Computing’, and which Intel and Google fund to the tune of 250,000 dollars.

Even before the turn of the century, people began to take an interest in recovering the feats of these valiant allies of computing, and in establishing a female genealogy that can determine the extent to which women have contributed to the advances we enjoy today. For instance, the names of Adele Katz’s ‘girls’ came to light in the eighties thanks to research carried out by Kathryn Kleiman at Harvard University, in what was one of the first steps towards revealing the role of women in the history of computing.

From the 21st century to the technological heavens

Once computing had gone further than we had previously imagined possible, and computers had spread beyond borders and over the oceans, it was only a matter of time before a female ‘hacker philosopher’ was born, destined to inspire the WikiLeaks spirit and to challenge the unstoppable flow of information, and to serve as a model for fictional characters like Lisbeth Salander from the famous Millenium trilogy. Even though the world of hackers seems to be all about long-haired guys with tattoos who show their pale, haggard faces on skype, there have also been others, including the woman known as ‘Saint Jude’. Jude Milhon (1939-2003) was a hacker and a feminist activist. We are indebted to her for the cyberpunk movement, and for her work encouraging the participation of women on the net. She was always the champion of the politically incorrect, with her war cry: ‘Girls need modems!’

From this point on, the frenetic development of computing opens up paths that we can’t even imagine yet, and visionaries like George Orwell and company are relegated to the realm of uchronia. Be that as it may, the progress we make from hereon in will be a shared effort, with men and women working shoulder to shoulder, in California and also in research labs in emerging countries that were not even on the IT map as little as five years ago.

And given that new technologies don’t exist in limbo –they are not neutral, they can spread the goodness of democracy or contribute to gender equality, for example– it is worth remembering the key contributions that we’ve mentioned here, and many more that deserve to be included. From Ada Lovelace, mother of computer programming, to the cyber women who have gone on to swell the ranks of cyberfeminism (including British philosopher Sadie Plant), many bridges have been built by women in this seemingly male world of information technology.

We are talking about technology that can help to bring about dialogue between cultures, so that information channels become paths that are open to the quest for the shared humanity that Zygmunt Bauman talks about. The fact that the hands which shaped its clay are male and female, female and male, unlike the hands that created machines such as cars and aeroplanes, is an unequivocal sign that we are already living in an age that is the fruit of shared effort. And this can only be a harbinger of a better future, in which we will move forward together, towards the technological heavens, without the need to avoid hitting a glass ceiling.

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A Secret History: Female Computing