Opinion: coding was once considered a female job and women were responsible for creating many innovative computer programming languages

By Dr Cornelia Connolly, Dr Tony Hall and Jim Lenaghan, School of Education, NUI Galway

The computing industry is dominated by men but this wasn’t always so. Coding was once considered a female job. While men were responsible for the building of machines, females programmed them.

The invention of the typewriter in the 1870s created a demand for female office workers. Men couldn’t match the speed which women were able to type and they found it monotonous so women were encouraged to undertake desk-jobs. In later years, the computer role was regularly taken by mathematically trained women, as they were cheaper to hire than their male counterpart.

Aligned with this, computer programming wasn’t considered an important job and men were more interested in building the hardware, the circuitry and figuring out the mechanics. This modern office environment was where many computer programming languages were developed and the first ever computer program was developed by a woman. Indeed, all the ladies in this article created innovative computer programming languages.

Ada Lovelace (1815–1852)

The English mathematician Ada, Countess of Lovelace, was born in 1815 and is widely considered the world's first computer programmer for her invention of the computer algorithm. The daughter of the mathematician, Anna Isabella Milbanke and poet Lord Byron, she considered mathematics to be "poetical science". Her mathematical scholarship was under the tutelage of Charles Babbage, who referred to her as the "Enchantress of Numbers". Babbage had developed an early version mechanical computer and Ada added extensively to his with the first computer program or algorithm. She is also credited with making the conceptual leap in the potential of computers to go beyond simply running calculations, but rather in using technology as a collaborative tool. March 24th is Ada Lovelace Day.

Kathleen Booth (born 1922)

Kathleen Booth

Computer programs were originally written in machine code, a series of ones and zeros. Kathleen Booth created the Assembly Language in 1950 which made it immediately easier to code, as the machine instructions were now in mnemonic form. The assembler would then translate them into machine code. She and her husband, Andrew Booth, worked on the same team at Birkbeck College in the UK, where he designed the computers and she programmed them. While working at Birkbeck, they created the Automatic Relay Computer (ARC), the Simple Electronic Computer (SEC) and the All Purpose Electronic Computer (APEC), remarkable achievements for the time.

Katerina Yushchenko (1919–2001)

The first programmable computer in the Soviet Union and European region was known as MESM. Created by the Soviets in 1950 at the Kiev Institute of Mathematics of the Ukrainian Academy of Science, Kateryna Yushchenko was a member of the group operating it. Yushchenko developed the Address programming language around 1955, one of the first high-level programming languages to be developed (high-level programming languages are those which are most commonly used today). The Address Programming Language provided the free location of a program in computer memory, unlike its predecessors which utilised direct memory addresses. Katerina had a distinguished academic career and supervised over 45 PhDs

Ida Rhodes (1900–1986)

Ida Rhodes. Photo: Smithsonian Institution Archives

Born in the Ukranie, Ida Rhodes was 13 when her parents moved to the US and she attended both Cornell and Columbia University studying mathematics. She worked in the US National Applied Mathematics Machine Development Laboratory (MDL) in Washington and developed the C-10 programming language along with Betty Holberton in the early 1950s. C-10 was used to program the UNIVAC, one of the first commercial computers, and used by the US Census Bureau in the original programming for the Social Security administration. Rhodes was a pioneer in working on computer translations of natural languages and, upon retirement, worked extensively in teaching programming to help deaf, mute and blind students learn to code. 

Grace Hopper (1906–1992)

Grace Hopper

Grace Brewster Murray Hopper was born in 1906 and some of her major accomplishments were in developing the complier and the COBOL programming language. Hopper created the first compiler in 1952, known as A-o, which converted English language-type instructions into machine code. Along with colleagues she developed the programming language COBOL in 1959. Still in use today, Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL) was created out of a need by both the US government and business for a data processing programming language that could run on different computers by non-technical people.

A US Navy Rear Admiral, she was also a mathematics professor during a time when such careers were highly unusual for women. Considered by many "the first lady of software", Hopper coined the term "computer bug" and was a visionary who consistently pushed boundaries in programming and laid the foundation for the user-friendliness of today’s personal computers. Even upon her retirement from the Navy, she worked as a consultant with Digital Equipment Corporation. Dr. Hopper was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016 by President Barack Obama.

Jean Sammet (1928–2017)

Jean Sammet

For a woman, gaining employment in mathematics and programming was challenging and Jean Sammet faced such setbacks in the 1950s. Having completed her MA in Mathematics and unable to get a teaching position she followed her interest in computer programming. Originally working on analog computers, she programmed the early digital computers which often took days to execute the code.

Sammet worked along with Grace Hopper in developing COBOL, and developed the programming language FORmula MAnipulation Complier – FORMAC in 1962 while working at IBM. An extension of the FORTRAN programing language, FORMAC was able to perform algebraic manipulations and was used extensively in symbolic mathematical computations.

In 1967, she published the renowned book Programming Languages: History and Fundamentals and also was involved in developing the Ada language in the 1970s.

Cynthia Solomon

Cynthia Soloman talks to Claudia Urrea about Seymour Papert

While working at Bolt, Beranek and Newman, Cynthia Soloman developed the Logo programming language along with Wally Feurzeig in consultation with Seymour Papert at MIT. In 1967, a working version of Logo was implemented in Lisp on a time-shared SDS 940 computer. According to Papert, the Logo computer language was specially designed to provide very early and easy entry routes into programming for children with minimal prior mathematical knowledge. In Logo, computer programming is introduced through teaching a programmable object/graphic on the screen in the shape of a turtle a new word with the turtle responding to new commands programmed by the student. Logo was influential in the creation of Smalltalk and Scratch.

These seven women were the ground-breaking and influential female computer scientists specifically in language development. Others who contributed to programming language creation include Barbara Liskov (CLU language in 1974), Adele Goldberg (Smalltalk in 1980) and Sophie Wilson (Basic in 1981).

Interview with Mary Allen Wilkes by Bruce Damer and Allan Lundell of the Digibarn Computer Museum about her work on the LINC computer

Several women made significant contributions in computing including the all-female programming team for ENIAC (the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) in 1946 – Jean Bartik, Betty Holberton, Marlyn Wescoff, Kathleen McNulty, Ruth Teitelbaum and Frances Spence. ENIAC was the world's first fully electronic general-purpose computer and this team went on to work on the UNIVAC. Similarly, women were pioneering in hardware and other technological inventions such as Erna Hoover, who created a telephone switching system; Hedy Lamarr, who developed a radio guidance system, the principles of which are incorporated into today’s Bluetooth technology; Mary Allen Wilkes, designer of the operating system for the LINC personal computer and Susan Kare for her work on the user interface for the early Macintosh.

Trailer for Bombshell - The Hedy Lamarr Story, Alexandra Dean's film on the life of the technological trailblazer and Hollywood star

For decades, the work of many of these female computing innovators has been overlooked. However, every time we use our computers, phones or tablets, we are using tools that may not exist only for them

Dr Cornelia Connolly and Dr Tony Hall are Joint Programme Directors (Education) for NUI Galway’s specialist teacher education degree programme in Mathematics and Applied Mathematics at the School of Education, NUI Galway. Jim Lenaghan is Chief Technical Officer at the School of Education at NUI Galway.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ