Augusta Ada Lovelace
The unofficial title of the Grand Dame of computer programming goes to a woman who had a real title. She was the Countess of Lovelace, daughter of poet Lord Byron. Her main claim to fame, though, had nothing to do with her royal title, except it’s perhaps the reason she was taken seriously at all. Ada Lovelace, a mathematician and writer, lived in the early 19th century. She was best known for her work with Charles Babbage in creating the first mechanical computer, called the analytical engine, to add, subtract, multiply and divide.
Babbage asked Ada to translate an article from French to English about the analytical engine that was written by the Italian engineer Luigi Federico Menabrea for a Swiss journal. Not only did Ada translate, she added her own notes, which ended up being longer than the article. Her notes were published in 1843 in an English science journal.
Her notes, which detailed how people could use codes of letters, symbols, and numbers to instruct computers to complete complex calculations. Ada is often called the first computer programmer. In the early 1980s, the U.S. Department of Defense named a language after Ada, not surprisingly, called Ada.
Grace Hopper was a true pioneer. She learned math and physics at Vassar College. She then entered Yale University and received a master’s degree in mathematics. Hopper went on to teach at Vassar while simultaneously becoming one of the first women to earn her Ph.D. in mathematics. She joined the military as a lieutenant in the U.S. Naval Reserves during World War II. The Navy assigned her to the Bureau of Ordinance Computation Project at Harvard, where her assignment was to program the Mark I computer.
Hopper continued with the reserves after the war and worked as a research fellow at Harvard where she worked with the Mark II and Mark III computers. She helped coin the term “computer bug” after a moth shorted out the Mark II.
In 1949, Hopper went to work in the private sector. While working for Remington Rand, she supervised programming for the UNIVAC computer. Her team developed the first computer language compiler, which is essentially a translator from words to computer code. The compiler eventually led the way to the COBOL language.
Jackson was a mathematician and an aerospace engineer. She graduated with bachelor’s degrees in math and physical science from Hampton University (then Hampton College) in 1942. After graduation, she taught mathematics for a segregated black school in Maryland. She went on to largely clerical jobs until 1951, when she was recruited by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which in 1958 became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
She began her career at the space agency in the segregated West Area Computing Section at Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA, which was her hometown. It was there she earned the reputation as a “human computer.” In 1953, Jackson went to work with Kazimierz Czarnecki to conduct experiments with high-speed wind tunnels. Czarnecki encouraged Jackson to become an engineer, but since she was black, she had to receive special permission. At the time, schools were segregated. Jackson was part of the team that was featured in Hidden Figures.
Even after achieving the honor of being the first black female engineer at NASA, she was denied management-level promotions. In 1979, she decided to take a demotion and run the women’s program at NASA, where she focused on encouraging women in the sciences. While Jackson became less focused on computers as her career developed at NASA, it is fair to say that without her, there would be even fewer women in computer sciences today.