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3 women who radically changed technology

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Update: Ada Lovelace Day is held every year on the second Tuesday of October to celebrate women in technology. We thought we’d update this post with a little more detail on the world’s first computer programmer for the occasion.

When we think of innovators of the technology space we largely think of blokes like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk – the zeitgeist is largely male. Women in technology seem to be getting rarer and rarer.

But that hasn’t always been the case. As a matter of fact, for the first decade or so programming was a ‘pink-collar’ industry. The vast majority of early coders were women. What’s more, it’s an industry created by women. Women changed technology into what it is today. Two centuries ago (when computers were made of flywheels and cogs), Ada Lovelace was the matriarch behind programmable computers. The world’s first developer, who lay down the foundations for the future we’re currently living in, was a woman. Almost a hundred years after she published her seminal documents on programmable computers, Alan Turing used them as inspiration for the modern, electric machines we still use today.

Now however, for no discernable reason, just 20% of the Australian IT workforce are women. So in order to not forget the industry’s roots – and hopefully inspire more Australian women to start crunching code – we thought we’d remember three notable innovators who radically changed the course of technology as we know it.

Ada Lovelace, 1815 – 1852: The world’s first computer programmer

Since Ada kicked off the computer revolution, it makes sense kick off this blog with her.

Ada Lovelace (or Lady Lovelace) is a household name in tech circles. And for good reason. If it wasn’t for her we might not have computers.

Ada was a genius-level mathematician. Her personality and brainpower lives on in the notes she left behind. Notes that beautifully married art, poetry and maths together to create her idea of modern computers. She even touched on artificial intelligence and a number of other concepts incredibly advanced for the nineteenth century. Keep in mind, this was a time when the luddites were smashing farming equipment, doctors were prescribing heroin to teething children and everyone had to change in and out of ten different layers of undergarment whenever nature called. To say Ada was ‘before her time’ is an understatement.

As a teenager, she met with mathematics professor Charles Babbage. His work on mechanical computing enthralled Ada, who despite her years, seemed to understand them perfectly. Babbage was rightly impressed, and shared his designs for a ‘general-purpose’ Analytical Engine (an enormous, mechanical calculator) with her. The machine was never built due to lack of funding, but that didn’t stop Ada from pouring over the blueprints and absorbing everything there was to know.

Thanks to her knowledge and experience with the machine, after Babbage gave a lecture on his theoretical new computer, Ada was commissioned to translate the transcript from French to English. (Did I mention she was bilingual?). Apparently feeling Babbage wasn’t comprehensive enough, Ada added her own notes to the transcript. So many in fact, that her amended version ended up being three times as long as the original.

In these notes, Ada discussed how numbers could be used for more than just representing quantities – in fact, with the right mathematics (what we now know as ‘programming’), the Analytics Engine could manipulate almost any data imaginable. She theorised that future machines could plot graphs, act as scientific tools and even make music – which of course, we now know they can.

As Walter Isaacson wrote in his phenomenal book The Innovators “[Lovelace made] the conceptual leap from machines that were mere calculators to the ones that we now call computers.” She seemed to understand the potential of Babbage’s Analytical Engine more than it’s creator himself, and is still considered the main driver of the information age.

Ada was a true visionary, and the great, great, great grandmother of modern computing. Though despite Lovelace’s invaluable contributions to the modern technology, for a long time she was left out of the history books. She was only really acknowledged in the 1980-90s. Historians Allan G. Bromley, and then Doran Swade, while researching Babbage’s work, discovered the enormous impact her writings had had on the development of programmable computers. Thankfully, we now give her the appropriate credit – Ada Lovelace Day is celebrated on the second Tuesday of October to remember women’s acheivements in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Grace Hopper, 1906 – 1992: Inventor of the complier

Grace Hopper (or ‘Amazing Grace’) was a Naval Admiral and computer scientist. She’s responsible for some of the biggest breakthroughs in computing around the 50’s and 60’s that brought us to where we are today. Most notably, her belief that computer programming should be as easy to write as English (and her passion to make it a reality) is largely the reason coders no longer need to write in ones and zeros.

Hopper studied maths religiously for her first thirty years. She was a professor before the outbreak of WWII when she decided to serve her country in the navy. Because of her vast experience with numbers, Hopper assumed she would be code breaking in the cryptography unit. The Navy had other ideas. A mind like hers wasn’t to be wasted, and she became the third programmer of the Mach I; a room-sized computer used to calculate trajectories and aiming angles for naval guns.

Programming was no simple task. Up until the 1950’s, you needed to write in machine language – huge strings of ones and zeros that a processor can understand. This was no easy feat. Hopper almost lived with the Mach I – sometimes transcribing and inputting computer babble for 24 hours a day. So, like any good innovator, she was determined to find an easier solution. Not only that, she wanted the magic of computers open to the masses. She decided it was possible to code in a language that resembled English more than binary, and set about finding a way to make it happen.

Despite everyone’s belief it wasn’t possible, Hopper invented the world’s first compiler: a program that takes something written in a programming language (what we write in today), and translates it into machine language that the computer can understand. Basically, she bridged the gap between the human mind and the computer.

Thanks to her contributions, we developers no longer need to write with just two characters. As a matter of fact, we have entire languages. Even more, she made coding something anyone can do.

Update: November 16, 2016 – Barack Obama awards Grace Hopper a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom for her “lifelong leadership role in the field of computer science”.  

Adele Goldberg, 1945: Brought computers to the masses

Dr. Adele Goldberg has received countless awards for her contributions to computer science and remains one of the most respected (albeit unsung) innovators in the software industry.

She was from a time where computers were rapidly gaining popularity – but they were hardly the Fisher-Price play centres they are now. There was no colour, desktop, windows, icons, mouse – all you had was a terminal and a keyboard. The rest was up to you.

Her career spanned numerous companies and corporations. Though her most notable and revolutionary work happened while she worked as a researcher at Xerox in the 1970’s.

She led a team of computer engineers who developed ‘Smalltalk’ and ‘Bitmapping’: the cornerstones of personal computing. Just as Grace Hopper had wanted to make coding accessible to the masses, Goldberg wanted computers to become user-friendly and easy to understand – no coding required.

She and her team decided that they wanted to employ a ‘graphical interface’ – what we now know as a GUI. It was an interface that employed imagery, icons and a ‘point-and-click’ method of navigation to make computers significantly easier to use.

When Steve Jobs discovered what her team had created, he decided Apple needed to find out precisely what was going on. Later on, Goldberg revealed her side of his famous visit. “He came back, and I almost said ‘asked’ but the truth is ‘demanded,’ that his entire programming team get a demo of the Smalltalk System… I had a big argument with these Xerox executives, telling them that they were about to give away the kitchen sink.

Dr. Golberg was rightfully hesitant to reveal too much about her teams’ work. She argued with the executives for three full hours that the presentation was a bad move – though in the end, it went ahead regardless.

Subsequently, Apple went on to become a multi-billion dollar company. Any guilt in regards to stealing Xerox’s idea was waved away in Jobs’ signature style; “They were copier-heads who had no idea what computers could do… They could have owned the entire industry”.

Funnily enough, when Bill Gates reused the GUI idea at Microsoft, Mr. Jobs was less than impressed.

Apple and Microsoft are suitably revered as two of the greatest technology companies of all time for their countless innovations. Though if it wasn’t for the work of Adele Goldberg and her team, the computers we use today might have turned out far differently. Who knows if they would have ever evolved past their pure-text, black and white ancestors at all?

If it wasn’t for the work of Grace Hopper, we wouldn’t have had the text-based computers in the first place. And if not for Ada Lovelace, we wouldn’t have had computers at all.

We need more women in technology

I’m going to conclude with a simple thought. Women in technology have made some of the most dramatic changes to the industry. We think it’s high time Australia’s IT departments, university halls and software companies held a few more like-minded women.

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