Culture 5 min read

The First Computer Geek was a Woman

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Women continue to prove that gender equality allows the most qualified candidates to succeed regardless of sex. 20th Century Fox’s upcoming release of Hidden Figures sheds light on the female, African-American mathematicians who helped NASA put a man on the moon. 

Although a discipline largely dominated by men, “economics” comes from the Greek roots oikos and nemein meaning “house management” – a key role entrusted to women.

Over time, the association of women with the home crystallized into separate spheres for women and men, and this often led to males dominating professions outside the home while women were expected to remain inside the home to manage the family exclusively.

Despite men asserting themselves over women in political and social contexts, there have always been women who exceeded expectations and helped improve our world.

Women were recognized for doing some amazing things in 2016, from Hillary Clinton clinching the Democratic nomination for President of the United States to President Obama posthumously awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper.

While Hillary won’t yet be the first female Commander-in-Chief of the U.S., she ran a tight race with President-elect Donald J. Trump, and even took a majority of the popular vote. Her groundbreaking campaign helped empower women of all ages to challenge the patriarchal glass ceiling and let their political, social and economic desires be heard.

Today, we’ll talk about how a woman may well have been the first computer geek.

Woman Computer Geek Rear Admiral Grace Hopper

On November 22, 2016, President Barack Obama presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the nation’s highest civilian honor) to 21 individuals. Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, affectionately known as “the first lady of software” received the award posthumously for her outstanding contributions to computer science. She was a true computer geek.

In a 1986 interview with David Letterman, Grace Hopper explained that she was a 37-year-old college professor at Vassar College when she enlisted in the Navy. She mentioned that the first computer she worked on, the Mark 1 at Harvard University, was 51 ft. long, 8 ft. wide and 8 ft. deep.

She had a down-to-earth approach to computing and easily illustrated a nanosecond to Letterman in layman’s terms. She is credited with inventing the computer programming language Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL), and inventing the first ever compiler for a programming language. Her innovations are still widely used on mainframe computers to this day.

Where did it all Start for Female Computer Scientists?

According to Simo Kari, the author of Miradore‘s “The Incredible History of Early Modern Computers and the IT Workers That Used Them,” the earliest definition of the word “computer” meant “someone who calculates.” The article mentions that since the 1940s, women were the dominant “computers” as the work was deemed a “clerical task to be performed by the secretarial pools.”

Early computations were based on quick, simple equations. As computation complexity advance over the years, women kept up and even contributed to advancements in the field. However, their part in the evolution of computing is still underappreciated.

World War II ushered in a desperate need for mentally-agile problem solvers. Women worked on the Colossus 1 (the first programmable computer used to crack German ciphers during the war), the Electrical Numeral Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), the Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer (EDVAC), the Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC), and the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC), which was used at the height of the Cold War in 1961. Women like Margaret Hamilton, leader of the software team for AGC, were consistently in the mix of computer science innovation and often times led the way for technological advancements in the fields of math and computer science.

African-American Women Computer Scientists

According to a September 2016 article by Maya Wei-Haas of the Smithsonian Magazine, in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, banning racial discrimination in hiring for federal defense work.

“These brilliant women faced numerous obstacles such as having to work in “Colored Only” workrooms.”

The passing of this executive order cleared the way for the first female African-American computer scientists to aid in the war effort. These women played a critical role in President John F. Kennedy‘s goal to put a man on the moon.

As referenced in Margot Lee Shetterly‘s book, Hidden Figures, Shetterly detailed the plight of her mother and her other female African-American colleagues at NASA. These brilliant women faced numerous obstacles such as having to work in “Colored Only” workrooms.

Despite segregation, the women worked diligently. Shetterly was able to piece together this little history and estimates that these women known as the “West Computers,” numbered in the hundreds, possibly thousands of employees at NASA Langley.

One key figure was Katherine Johnson, who calculated trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo space missions. Johnson was also named the Director of the West Computer Division.

Little Known History

This incredible history might make you wonder why the proportion of women in math and science-related fields have dropped. Perhaps stories like those of computer geek Grace Hopper and Katherine Johnson need greater attention to inspire young women mathematicians and scientists.

Perhaps greater knowledge of influential female minds in computer science will rally women to assist in advancing new technologies like Artificial Intelligence. In the words of the great James Brown, it might be, “a man’s world,” but, “it wouldn’t mean nothing without a woman or a girl.”

So, tell us Edgy Lab readers, what do you think about the first computer geek being a woman and what do you hope to see from women in the fields of math, science, and technology in the future?

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Comments (2)
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  1. Whitley Malone November 29 at 9:17 pm GMT

    Great article! I think its awesome how diverse women are. And even greater to become knowledgeable of the role women played in computing. As we go stronger in society as women, I hope to see more women becoming CEOs and owners of IT companies.

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      Kimberly Coleman Author November 30 at 3:07 am GMT

      Thanks Whitley for your thoughtful feedback! We agree that is great to have such incredible and strong female role models from every walk of life. We are so pleased that you enjoyed the article and we look forward to you checking out our upcoming articles on some pretty exciting topics. Also, feel free to suggest some topics that might be of interest to you and other Edgy Labs readers. #KeepitEdgy

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