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Women are claiming their place in tech history

Author: Kristen V. Brown
Publish Date: 

In 1843, Lovelace, an English mathematician and daughter of the poet Lord Byron, was the first to imagine the modern computer. It was a vision a full century ahead of its time.

Yet in the time since, she has frequently been dismissed as a character unimportant to the history of computing. Writing in 1990, the science historian and former Harvard Assistant Dean Bruce Collier posited that she was not only “overrated” but manic-depressive and delusional. And when not rebuffed, Lovelace has been frequently overlooked altogether.

Feminist trailblazer Gloria Steinem once said: “Women have always been an equal part of the past. We just haven’t been an equal part of history.” Ada Lovelace is a case in point.

But two new books out this month seek to give Lovelace and other women their proper places in the annals of computer science history.

In “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution,” Walter Isaacson’s hefty tome about how groups, rather than lone individuals, spur the greatest innovation, the outsize role of women in the early history of computing is a central theme. And in a new biography of Ada Lovelace, “Ada’s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age,” author James Essingerseeks to make it explicitly clear that the history of computing begins with a woman.

Taken together, it would appear that the two works mark a shift: the forgotten women of computing are now being written into its history.

Lovelace, for one, is deemed so important in Isaacson’s book that he both begins and ends the story of the digital revolution with her.

As a young woman Lovelace befriended Charles Babbage, an English scientist who had proposed the building of the Analytical Engine, a revolutionary machine that could perform complex mathematical equations. The machine was never actually built, but a set of notes Lovelace published in a scientific journal in 1843 imagined the Analytical Engine as something much greater than Babbage ever did. Lovelace, who died in 1852 at only 36, saw it as a general computer that could process everything from math to music. Her ideas would become tremendously influential to 20th century computer scientists such as Alan Turing.

“The reality is that Ada’s contribution was both profound and inspirational,” Isaacson writes. “More than Babbage or any other person of her era, she was able to glimpse a future in which machines would become partners of the human imagination.”

Yet, Isaacson, also the biographer of Steve Jobs, has said he had no idea who Lovelace was until his daughter mentioned her.

Essinger, the author of the Lovelace biography, noted that when he first began researching her 10 years ago as part of a book about Babbage, her “contributions were not deemed particularly important.”

“The history of science is not typically very generous to women,” he said. “But now more and more people are accepting that Ada was a visionary. It seems to be in zeitgeist. People have actually gone and looked at her work and realized it’s not fair to just describe her as a follower of Babbage.”

Isaacson tells a similar story about six other women who lived a century after Lovelace, the women who worked on the first electronic general-purpose computer, ENIAC, built during World War II. The women were tasked with programming the computer, and yet at a public dinner held in 1946 to celebrate the machine, none of them were invited.

At the time, programming was viewed along the lines of secretarial work — repetitive labor rather than the hard intellectual work of designing hardware.

As Jean Jennings, one of those programmers, would later write, “If the ENIAC administrators had known how crucial programming would be to the functioning of the electronic computer and how complex it would prove to be, they might have been more than hesitant to give such an important role to a woman.”

For decades after, their contributions would be viewed as unimportant.

“Especially in technology history, the first draft of history is often written by its practitioners. And those practitioners are usually white men,” said Marie Hicks, a historian of technology at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “None of the ENIAC women wrote their own stories. Women were still not usually the ones inventing stuff. That makes it hard for women’s stories to go into play.”

Gaining recognition for the women of computer science history, could also be an important step in paving the way for more women to work in computer science now, said Janet Abbate, a professor of the history and culture of computing at Virginia Tech. Since the days of the ENIAC women, the number of women working in computer sciences has declined precipitously. In 1985, women earned 37 percent of computer science degrees but by 2010 that number had been cut in half.

“We need to see the skill and the potential in people who don’t look like our stereotype of a good programmer or scientist,” said Abbate. “Seeing a greater diversity of excellence in computer 'heroes’ from the past can help us see it in the present as well.”

In her day, Lovelace was an extreme outlier — it was not common for women of privilege in Victorian England to pursue intellectual work. When Lovelace submitted her paper on Babbage’s machine, the editors of the scientific journal suggested it might be better if Babbage sign his name instead of hers.

For Essinger, Lovelace’s biographer, her prominence in other works such as Isaacson’s is a sure sign that things are about to turn around for her.

“It means Ada is actually going to get her due,” he said.


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