It’s not just a man’s world in technology.
When asked to imagine a stereotypical programmer, we all immediately think of a young man who has been tinkering with an old computer in the basement, turning it into something straight out of Star Trek and playing lots of video games with his online friends. If we ask “who do you think was the first programmer in history?”, a natural assumption would be it‘s one of those stereotypical men. The truth is far from that. The first programmer in history turns out to be a woman, and thanks to a group of female mathematicians we have evolved technology to where it is today.
The First Programmer and her Algorithm
You might not expect it, but in the early 20th century many of the first programmers were women rather than men. Let‘s start right at the beginning with the creator of the first ever computer algorithm: Ada Lovelace. Born in 1815 to Lord and Lady Byron, who did not want her daughter to follow the footsteps of her poetic father, she tutored Ada as a pure mathematician.
Ada Lovelace and the Babbage Machine
At 17 years of age, Ada Lovelace met polymath Charles Babbage at a party and became mesmerised by his ideas, and enraptured in his mathematical engine model. He had created the plans for “a machine that he believed would be able to do complex mathematical calculations”. Lovelace wrote about this machine and its potential for a scientific journal. But her vision of this machine far exceeded that of Babbage; Lovelace is often named as the world’s first programmer. Author Walter Isaacson explains in his book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution:
“She envisioned that a computer can do anything that can be noted logically. Words, pictures and music, not just numbers. She understands how you take an instruction set and load it into the machine, and she even does an example, which is programming Bernoulli numbers, an incredibly complicated sequence of numbers.”
The Babbage machine never was constructed, but the notes from Babbage and Lovelace were used to build the first computer a lifetime later.
The 11th October is Ada Lovelace Day, “an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).” Lovelace died at the age of 36 and the object oriented programming language ‘Ada‘ is named in her memory.
The First Compiler
Grace Hopper, also known as the Queen of Software and the Grandma COBOL, was the first person to transform binary programming code into a word-based programming language. She designed the Flow-Matic language in 1958, which was the first “English-like data processing language”. Hopper had noted that most data processing users did not feel comfortable using mathematical notation, so she wanted to create a mechanism based on the English language. Flow-Magic allowed users to write commands using words rather than mathematics.
This is quite a revolutionary leap as it made programming more accessible to anyone who was not a pure mathematician or perhaps had a limited expertise with numbers and mathematical notation. It also was the first time people were able to read the outputs of a computer in words rather than binary code. Hopper believed that programming would become much more popular if anyone could read the programs. How right she was.
Sleek Interfaces and Iconic Design
Jumping forwards quite a few years, we have to mention the lady responsible for the flawless design of the Apple as we know it today. Susan Kare, described as the “user interface guru and the Betsy Ross of the personal computer” designed the Apple‘s stunning typography and the now universally known Mac command icon. She also created the Happy Mac icon and the trash icon. Kare left Apple at the same time Steve Jobs was pushed out, and went to work for Microsoft, making the Windows 3.0 operating system more human. Kare continued on to work for Facebook creating the ‘rubber ducky‘ amongst many designs.