Why I Donate All of My Book’s Proceeds to Girls Who Code

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@vladimirVladimir Bok

Author, GANs in Action @ManningBooks 📖 • CompSci @Harvard • Data/ML Product Manager

Few, if any, of my classmates shared my fascination with the Mark I Computer that was on display in our university’s Science Center. It is hard to blame them. Towering at 8 feet and filled with rotary switches, crystal diodes, and tangled wires, the Mark I resembles a prop from a science fiction movie rather than a computer the U.S. Navy once used. In its prime in the 1940s, the Mark I was one of the most powerful supercomputers on Earth; today, the smartphone we carry in our pockets would put it to shame. Yet, neither the smartphone nor the operating system that powers it would be possible without the early mainframes like the Mark I or the computer science pioneers who operated them. Many of those pioneers were women.
I was a history buff long before becoming a computer nerd. Early computers, like the Mark I, fascinated me because they gave inquiring minds the ability to make an impact beyond the imaginable. They crunched the complex computations that aided in the creation of the atomic bomb and those that propelled humankind to the moon. Though obvious in hindsight, the boundless potential of programmable machines had to be recognized and harnessed by enterprising individuals who looked beyond the towering machinery and saw something greater than a calculator. The brilliance, perseverance, and accomplishments of these technology pioneers turned the promise of general-purpose computing into reality. Those individuals were my inspiration to pursue computer science.
History’s first coder, Ada Lovelace, was a woman. In her correspondence with the British mathematician Charles Babbage, Lovelace recognized the immense potential of the programmable machine he invented, the Analytical Engine, and devised what is believed to be the first computer algorithm.¹ Sadly, Babbage’s invention was never completed, and the world had to wait almost a century for machines similar to the one he and Lovelace envisioned. Among them was the Mark I, one of the world’s first general-purpose computers.
Inspired by Babbage’s Analytical Engine, the Mark I combines mechanical and electronic components. Its construction took over five years, and when it was delivered to Harvard University in 1944, the computer was put into the war’s service. Grace Hopper, a mathematics Ph.D. who enlisted in the U.S. Navy, was commissioned as one of Mark I’s first coders. Dr. Hopper and her team used the Mark I to aid a wide range of military projects, from torpedo design to implosion computations that contributed to the development of the atomic bomb.² It was a tragic token of the times that the purpose of the Mark I—one of humankind’s most transformative creations and a forerunner of today’s digital renaissance—was to assist in destruction. Fortunately, it was not long until the war came to an end and programmable machines made their way to civilian use. Dr. Hopper helped spearhead the transition.
After the war, Dr. Hopper continued to play a central role in computing. In the 1950s, she created one of the most consequential innovations in software engineering: the compiler.³ An intermediate program that converts human-written code into machine instructions, the compiler makes it possible to write software in plain English rather than machine code. Dr. Hopper also co-developed one of the most popular early programming languages, COBOL,⁴ which is used in production systems to this day.
The history of computing is filled with pioneering women whose hard work and brilliance helped propel humankind into the digital age. The task of programming the ENIAC, the world’s first fully digital general-purpose computer, was completed by an all-female team: Kathleen McNulty, Jean Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Frances Bilas, and Ruth Lichterman.⁵ Unlike its electromechanical precursors such as the Mark I, the ENIAC was all-electronic. This allowed it to reach previously unimaginable computing speeds. The Mark I could execute only three commands per second; the ENIAC could complete over five thousand in that time.⁶
This was perfect for the growing computational demands of the American war machine but also meant that the old ways of coding became obsolete. New paradigms had to be invented to harness the power and complexity of the new hardware. Rising to the challenge, McNulty and her colleagues developed techniques such as subroutines and nesting, and turned the ENIAC into a stored-program computer (one that stores, modifies, and executes instructions from electronic memory),⁷ paving the way for modern software engineering.
As computers ceased to be instruments of destruction and made their way to our homes, women programmers remained at the forefront of software. In the 1960s, Mary Allen Wilkes was tasked with creating the operating system for the LINC, considered by many as the first personal computer due to its relatively small size. Unlike its monstrous, multi-ton predecessors, the LINC could fit into a single laboratory or office.
Wilkes was allowed to bring the machine home, making her the first person to use a personal computer.⁸ It was not just the size that made the LINC revolutionary. Equipped with a screen and a keyboard, it could be programmed directly and interactively—eliminating the need for punch cards and printouts, the mainstay of prior computing machines.⁹ Equally revolutionary were the programming innovations Wilkes developed while designing software for the LINC, which laid the foundation for all of today’s operating systems, from Windows to iOS.
Women programmers were also instrumental in NASA’s space program. Dorothy Vaughan, a self-taught FORTRAN programmer, and her female colleagues performed many of the computations that helped bring the first American into the earth’s orbit and ensure his safe return.¹⁰
Another woman computer scientist, Margaret Hamilton, led the engineering team whose software powered the Apollo 11 mission to the moon.¹¹ Indeed, Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” was made possible in no small part by the ingenuity of a woman. The contributions of these trailblazing women are rarely celebrated—even forgotten.
The prominent role women played in the early days of software engineering stands in stark contrast to the composition of today’s computer science classrooms and workplaces. The situation seems to be worsening. Based on U.S. government statistics cited by The New York Times, over 37% of computer science graduates in 1984 were women; by 2010, the proportion fell to less than 18%.¹²
The groundbreaking achievements of women computer scientists are proof enough that success in computing knows no gender.
The gender imbalance is clearly not due to a lack of innate aptitude. The groundbreaking achievements of women computer scientists are proof enough that success in computing knows no gender.
In recognition of how much has been accomplished by the programming pioneers discussed above, I am honored to support the nonprofit organization Girls Who Code. As a young history buff with a fascination for technology, I looked up to the women coding trailblazers; it was they who inspired me to pursue a degree in computer science. It is a privilege to pay it forward to the future generations of women technology leaders.

Images

  1. Grace Hopper, Ph.D. (Vassar Archives)
  2. The Harvard Mark I, 1943 (Encyclopædia Britannica/IBM Archives)
  3. Mary Allen Wilkes (New York Times/Joseph C. Towler, Jr.)

References

  1. C. Thompson, The Secret History of Women in Coding (2019), The New York Times
  2. Unknown, The Mark I Computer: What was it used for? (n.d.), Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments
  3. Unknown, The Mark I Computer: The Crew (n.d.), Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments
  4. Ibid.
  5. C. Thompson, The Secret History of Women in Coding (2019), The New York Times
  6. Walter Isaacson, Grace Hopper, computing pioneer (2014), The Harvard Gazette
  7. J. Lightfoot, Introducing ENIAC Six (2016), Atomic Object blog
  8. C. Thompson, The Secret History of Women in Coding (2019), The New York Times
  9. Ibid.
  10. E. Howell, The Story of NASA’s Real “Hidden Figures” (2017), Scientific American
  11. A. George, Margaret Hamilton Led the NASA Software Team That Landed Astronauts on the Moon (2019), Smithsonian
  12. C. Thompson, The Secret History of Women in Coding (2019), The New York Times

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