As you likely know, today is Ada Lovelace day.
As the history goes, Charles Babbage designed the first computer, which he called ‘the analytic engine’, an unbelievable innovation both in engineerial and computational theory. Although opaque to almost everyone aside from Babbage, the concept of computability was grasped and expanded upon by one young mathematician, Ada Byron, later countess of Lovelace.
Ada Byron’s upbringing was highly unusual for women in this period (even excepting that she was in the tiny percentage of landowning families in England in the early 1800s). Ada was afforded quite a bit of tutoring, due to chronic illness which kept her in bed. But more unusual is that Ada was trained in mathematics, the reason for which being that her mother considered math the natural opposite of poetry, and wanted Ada to be as unlike her “wild” poetic father, Lord Byron, as possible. Ada showed particular skill in mathematics and at age 17, De Morgan suggestion she might become “an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence”.
As a young adult Ada Byron met Charles Babbage socially, and connected intellectually, writing back and forth about Babbage’s invention. Babbage envisioned his machine as a thing able to do arbitrary calculations, which in itself was an incredible invention. He and Ada discussed the possibility of such a machine, and as a proof of concept, Ada developed the first program which could run on such a machine, one calculating the Bernoulli numbers. This officially makes Ada the first computer programmer. But Ada saw a great deal more promise in the analytic engine than just calculations. She proposed representing and processing other data as numbers, a concept which now enables the vast majority of what we understand computers to be capable of.
Many persons who are not conversant with mathematical studies, imagine that because the business of the engine is to give its results in numerical notation, the nature of its processes must consequently be arithmetical and numerical … This is an error. The engine can arrange and combine its numerical quantities exactly as if they were letters or any other general symbols.
So this is all to say that Ada of Lovelace was a remarkable genius. But talking about how amazing this one example we can find of a brilliant woman in computer science is really antithetical to the goals of Ada Lovelace Day. Especially since since the one woman we can apparently point to died over 150 years ago.
So, here are some computer scientists who actually existed in the last century:
Grace Hopper (1906-1992) was a contemporary of Alan Turing, and like Turing she served during WWII to fight the nazis through the power of computer science! Or something like that. She developed the first compiler for a computer programming language (called the A compiler), conceptualized the idea of machine-independent programming languages, and popularized the term “debugging”.
All the first ENIAC programmers were women:
Kay McNulty, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Ruth Lichterman, Betty Jennings, and Fran Bilas.
Erna Schneider invented computerized telephone switches (the same method that is used today), for which she was awarded one of the first software patents ever issued.
Mary Allen Wilkes developed the assembler-linker model used in modern programming compilers (also arguably the first person to use a home computer).
Conceptualized and implemented the first operating system to sit between a program and the actual computer hardware.
Anita Borg, CTO of XEROX Parc in 1997 (who is being included because of how impressive the research at XEROX Parc is).
Fran Allen in 2006 won the Turing Award. She was responsible for many of the abstractions, algorithms, and implementations that form the basis for optimizations in compilers.
Barbara Liskov won the Turing Award in 2008 for the design of programming languages and software methodology that led to the development of object-oriented programming.