The Secret History of Women in Coding

Almost 200 years ago, the first person to be what we would now call a coder was, in fact, a woman: Lady Ada Lovelace.

Lady Ada Lovelace as a young mathematician in England in 1833, she met Charles Babbage, an inventor who was struggling to design what he called the Analytical Engine, which would be made of metal gears and able to execute if/then commands and store information in memory. Enthralled, Lovelace grasped the enormous potential of a device like this. A computer that could modify its own instructions and memory could be far more than a rote calculator, she realized. To prove it, Lovelace wrote what is often regarded as the first computer program in history, an algorithm with which the analytical engine would calculate the Bernoulli sequence of numbers. She wasn’t shy about her accomplishments, as it could led to women in coding (That brain of mine is something more than merely mortal; as time will show,” she once wrote.) But Babbage never managed to build his computer, and Lovelace, who died of cancer at 36, never saw her code executed.

When digital computers finally became a practical reality in the 1940s, women in coding were again pioneers in writing software for the machines. At the time, men in the computing industry regarded writing code as a secondary, less interesting task. The real glory lay in making the hardware. Software? That term hadn’t yet been invented, according to a professor at M.I.T. who studies the history of science and technology.

This dynamic was at work in the development of the first programmable digital computer in the United States, the electronic numerical integrator and computer, or Eniac, during the 1940s. Funded by the military, the thing was a behemoth, weighing more than 30 tons and including 17,468 vacuum tubes. Merely getting it to work was seen as the heroic, manly engineering feat. In contrast, programming it seemed menial, even secretarial. Women in coding had long been employed in the scut work of doing calculations. In the years leading up to the Eniac, many companies bought huge electronic tabulating machines — quite useful for tallying up payroll, say — from companies like IBM; women in coding frequently worked as the punch-card operators for these overgrown calculators. When the time came to hire technicians to write instructions for the Eniac, it made sense, to the men in charge, to pick an all-female team: Kathleen McNulty, Jean Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Frances Bilas and Ruth Lichterman. The men would figure out what they wanted Eniac to do; the women in coding “programmed” it to execute the instructions.

Betty Snyder realized that if you wanted to debug a program that wasn’t running correctly, it would help to have a “break point,” a moment when you could stop a program midway through its run. To this day, break points are a key part of the debugging process.

In 1946, Eniac’s creators wanted to show off the computer to a group of leaders in science, technology and the military. They asked Jennings and Snyder to write a program that calculated missile trajectories. After weeks of intense effort, they and their team had a working program, except for one glitch: It was supposed to stop when the missile landed, but for some reason it kept running. The night before the demo, Snyder suddenly intuited the problem. She went to work early the next day, flipped a single switch inside the Eniac and eliminated the bug. According to research, Betty could do more logical reasoning while she was asleep than most people can do awake. Nonetheless, the women got little credit for their work. At that first official demonstration to show off Eniac, the male project managers didn’t mention, much less introduce, the women.

After the war, as coding jobs spread from the military into the private sector, women remained in the coding vanguard, doing some of the highest-profile work. The pioneering programmer Grace Hopper is frequently credited with creating the first “compiler,” a program that lets users create programming languages that more closely resemble regular written words: A coder could thus write the English-like code, and the compiler would do the hard work of turning it into ones and zeros for the computer. Hopper also developed the “Flowmatic” language for nontechnical businesspeople. Later, she advised the team that created the Cobol language, which became widely used by corporations. Another programmer from the team, Jean E. Sammet, continued to be influential in the language’s development for decades. Fran Allen was so expert in optimizing Fortran, a popular language for performing scientific calculations, that she became the first female IBM fellow.

When the number of coding jobs exploded in the ’50s and ’60s as companies began relying on software to process payrolls and crunch data, men had no special advantage in being hired. As Wilkes had discovered, employers simply looked for candidates who were logical, good at math and meticulous. And in this respect, gender stereotypes worked in women’s favour: Some executives argued that women’s traditional expertise at painstaking activities like knitting and weaving manifested precisely this mind-set. (The 1968 book “Your Career in Computers” stated that people who like “cooking from a cookbook” make good programmers.)

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