The mothers of the computer sciences
The return of the Spring brings about two celebrations in Romania: Martisor – a combination of ages-old traditions and International Women Day on 8 March. As the best Romanian software development company that employs women as almost 40% of the workforce, we want to remember where everything started.
We wrote this article about the first (historically speaking ) ladies of computer science, the mothers of software development. It is a homage for some of the women that helped the industry became what is today.
The daughter of a Romantic poet, she is the first algorithm writer in the history
Ada Lovelace, Countess of Lovelace, was the only daughter of Lord Byron, the Romantic poet, and she lived two centuries ago. She was an English mathematician and writer, a Victorian revolutionary, mostly known for her work on the Analytical Engine. She was the first to state that the machine had many, not just calculations and wrote the first algorithm for this machine. The countess is many times regarded as the first person in history to forecast the whole applications for a “computing machine” and one of the first computer programmers.
The human computers
Barbara Canright was the first of many women employed for the computing type of work, though in 1941 she was the sole exception to this domain. It`s not just that women weren`t hired for engineering jobs, the technical university did not enroll women at that time. Barbara “Barby” Canright found a job at California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1939. As the first-ever known female “human computer,” her job was to calculate anything from how many rockets to be loaded in a plane to what kind of rockets are needed to launch a spacecraft. She did everything by hand, during weeks of calculations, using loads of notebooks.
After the Pearl Harbour attack happened, given the amount of work, more “human computers” were hired, including three other women pioneers in the field: Melba Nea, Virginia Prettyman, and Macie Roberts.
Barbara Paulson played an important role in the historic launch of the JPL-built Explorer 1, the first successfully launched satellite by the United States of America. She was tasked with calculating the data from the satellite and from a network tracking station. It was the beginning of the Space Race.
Janez Lawson was the first African-American to hold a technical job in the JPL lab. She used the IBM computers in the lab and, with her supervisor’s encouragement to further pursue her studies, Lawson was one of two people sent to special IBM training to learn how to operate and program the machines.
Katherine Johnson gave them the moon. During her impressive career, she calculated the trajectory for the 1961 space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space. She also calculated the launch window for his 1961 Mercury mission. She set backup navigation charts for astronauts in case of technical failures.
When NASA started using computers for astronaut John Glenn’s orbit around the Earth, the people of NASA called Johnson to verify the computer’s calculations; the astronaut had refused to fly unless Johnson verified everything. Johnson later worked directly with digital computers, the new technology had been establishing confidence thanks to her reputation. She also helped to calculate the charts for the first Moon landing with Apolo 11, in 1961.
Sue Finley has been an employee of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory since January 1958. She also worked as a subsystem engineer for NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN). She has worked in missions that led to the exploration of the Moon, the Sun, all the planets, and other cellestial bodies in the Solar System.
Dorothy Vaughan – During her career, Vaughan worked in the introduction of computers in the early 1960s by teaching herself and her staff FORTRAN. Does anyone remember FORTRAN these days?
Mary Jackson was an excellent mathematician in a time of racial segregation. She was also a “human computer” for NACA. The story of her extraordinary contributions to the space race was later pictured in the 2016 film Hidden Figures.
Happy spring, everyone!