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International Women's Day: Women in Computing

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The 8th March 2016 is International Women's Day, a campaign for gender parity and a celebration of the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women. 

In this tutorial, I'll explain just a fraction of the important contribution women have made, and continue to make, to computing.

19th Century

Ada Lovelace: Babbage's Analytical Engine

Lovelaces diagram from Note G the first published computer algorithmLovelaces diagram from Note G the first published computer algorithmLovelaces diagram from Note G the first published computer algorithm
Lovelace's diagram from Note G, the first published computer algorithm (Public domain image)

Ada Lovelace (10th December 1815 to 27th November 1852) or Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, was an English mathematician who's known primarily for her work on Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine.

Lovelace was commissioned by Charles Wheatstone to translate a paper, written by Italian engineer Luigi Menabrea, from French into English. Menabrea's paper was of an 1840 lecture given by Babbage, to the University of Turin, about his Analytical Engine.

Lovelace spent around a year translating the paper and adding her own notes, with assistance from Babbage, resulting in a a work that was more extensive than Menabrea's original paper. Her work was published in Taylor's Scientific Memoirs.

Lovelace's notes made a point of differentiating the Analytical Engine from other calculating machines that came before it in that it could be programmed to solve complex problems.

Lovelace's notes on the Analytical Engine included an algorithm intended to be calculated by the machine. For this Lovelace is regarded as the first computer programmer.

Babbage's Analyticial Engine was never built in his lifetime. In fact, the first general purpose computers were not built until the 1940s, more than a century after Babbage proposed the machine in 1837.

In recognition of Lovelace's insight, a computer language developed for the US Department of Defense was named Ada and the standard for the language, MIL-STD-1815 was given to reflect the year of her birth.

Ada Lovelace Day, which champions the creation of new role models in science, technology, engineering and mathematics for girls and women, is celebrated each year in mid-October.

Since 1998, the British Computer Society has awarded a Lovelace medal and has, since 2008, run an annual competition for women students of computer science.

20th Century

Grace Hopper: Harvard Mark 1

Grace Hopper in 1952Grace Hopper in 1952Grace Hopper in 1952
Grace Hopper in 1952 (licenced under Creative Commons)

Known as one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark 1 computer in 1944, Grace Hopper (9th December 1906 to 1st January 1992) invented the first compiler for a programming language.

Hopper is credited with popularising machine-independent programming languages. 

Her belief was that computer programming languages should resemble English rather than machine code or languages that were close to machine code. This led to the development of one of the first high-level languages, COmmon Business-Oriented Language, COBOL.

The computing terms bug and debugging are said to have originated from when Hopper resolved a glitch by physically removing a moth that had got stuck in the computer.

Hopper retired, for the third time, from the US Navy on 14th August 1986 at the age of 79 years, eight months and five days.

She went on to work as a senior consultant at Digital Equipment Corporation where she lectured on computing and acted as a goodwill ambassador until her death, in 1992, aged 85 years.

Kay McNulty, Marlyn Wescoff, Fran Bilas, Ruth Lichterman, Adele Goldstine and Betty Snyder: ENIAC

Programmers Betty Jean Jennings (left) and Fran Bilas (right) operate ENIAC's main control. (U.S. Army photo from the archives of the ARL Technical Library)

Eighty years ago was a time when the word computer referred to a person rather than a machine. In 1945, the US Army recruited six women, as computers, to the University of Pennsylvania to work on a secret Government project. 

ENIAC, meaning Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, was the first programmable general-purpose electronic digital computer. 

ENIAC was designed for the purpose of computing artillery range tables. It could be programmed to perform complex sequences of operations including loops, branches and subroutines, though the task of programming the machine was hugely complex and could take weeks to achieve.

The primary programmers, of ENIAC, were six women who not only determined how to program the machine but developed an understanding of how to debug the machine.

The women, Kay McNulty, Marlyn Wescoff, Fran Bilas, Ruth Lichterman, Adele Goldstine and Betty Snyder have since been recognised for their contributions to computing.

Dina St Johnston: Vaughan Programming Services

Dina St Johnston (20th September 1930 to 30th June 2007) was a computer programmer who is recognised as founding the first software company in 1959.

Following a career with Elliot Brothers (London) Ltd, from 1953, she programmed the Elliot series computers.

In 1959, St Johnston founded Vaughan Programming Services, or VPS, which is notable for that fact that it took software contracts, trained and hired additional programmers as required. 

VPS was the first software company that was independent of  computer manufacturers, bureaus and consultancies and is known for its work in transport signalling and display systems.

Stephanie 'Steve' Shirley: Freelance Programmers

(Image copyright Steve Jurveston (licenced under Creative Commons)

Born in 1933, in Germany, Dame Shirley is a British information technology pioneer.

From the 1950s, Shirley built computers and wrote code in machine language at the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill. In her own time she undertook evening classes over six years to obtain a mathematics degree with honours.

In 1959 she joined CDL Ltd, designers of the ICT 1301 computer before founding the company Freelance Programmers in 1962.

Shirley's motivation was to create job opportunities for women with dependants. She put her principles into practice by employing a predominantly female workforce with only three male programmers out of more than 300. That was, until, the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 outlawed the practice.

Notably, Stephanie Shirley adopted the name Steve to help her navigate the male-dominated business world.

Shirley's projects included the programming of Concorde's black box flight recorder and she later served as an independent non-executive director for Tandem Computers, The Atomic Energy Authority and The John Lewis Partnership.

Shirley was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 1980 Queen's Birthday Honours, for services to industry. She was promoted Dame Commander (DBE) in the New Year Honours, 2000 in recognition for her services to Information Technology.

Since retiring in 1997, Shirley has concentrated on philanthropy and has donated most of her wealth to charity.

Carol Shaw: Atari & Activision

Born in 1955, Shaw is reputed to be the first female video game designer notably for her Polo and Tic-Tac-Toe games, of 1978 and 1979, when she worked for Atari.

Having first become interested in computers at high school, Shaw attended the University of California, Berkeley and graduated with a degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in 1977. She went on to complete a Masters at the same institution.

Later, joining Activision in 1982 following a stint with Tandem Computers, Shaw programmed her most well-known game River Raid.

Returning to former employer, Tandem, she worked from 1984 until 1990 attributing the success of River Raid as the means to retire early and concentrate on voluntary work.

20th-21st Century

Sophie Wilson: Acorn Computer & ARM

Sophie WilsonSophie WilsonSophie Wilson
Sophie Wilson (Photo copyright Chris Monk, licensed under Creative Commons)

Teenagers of the 1980s, in Britain, will all be familiar with the BBC Model B microcomputer. Those who took an interest will know that this iconic computer was produced by Acorn Computer and developed by a small team in Cambridge.

A key player in the team, Sophie Wilson, has since been awarded a lifetime achievement award for her work at Acorn, and latterly ARM, that has seen her designs used in more than 50 billion microchips.

Acorn pioneered RISC, or Reduced Instruction Set Computing, microchips that use less power and generate less heat but still offer excellent performance.

Acorn later became ARM, or Acorn RISC Machine, and developed their Archimedes line of computers around the RISC chips. Eventually unable to compete with IBM and IBM-clone PCs, ARM concentrated on chip design.

Since 1990 ARM, being a partnership between Acorn and Apple, licences their chip designs to hardware manufacturers or countless devices including smartphones and routers.

With 50 billion plus ARM chips in circulation, it is estimated that each person will have around 50 in the various devices that they own. All of these running reduced instruction set computing designed by Wilson.

21st Century

Ayah Bdeir: Littlebits

Ayah Bdeir is a Computer Engineering graduate of the American University of Beirut and holds a Masters degree in Computing Culture from the MIT Media Lab.

The founder and CEO of LittleBits, an award-winning platform of electronic building blocks. It's like an electronic LEGO, an open-source library of modular electronics that snap together with magnets. They can be used for fun, education and prototyping.

Bdeir co-founded the Open Hardware Summits of 2010 and 2011 appearing also as a design mentor on a reality television show, Stars of Science.

A proponent of open hardware and the Internet of Things, Bdeir was awarded a fellowship with Creative Commons for her work and summits of 2010/11.

A speaker at, and fellow of, TED, these are only some of Bdeir's achievements so far.

Andrea Pfundmeier: Secomba GmbH

Andrea Pfundmeier, a law and economics graduate of Augsberg University, founded a software company in 2011. 

Pfundemeier's company specialises in cross-platform software that protects data stored in popular cloud-storage products. In 2014, her company won the 

Pfundmeier is, since 2014, a member of the Advisory Board for the Digital Start-Up Economy of the German Federal Ministry of Economics.


Despite often being perceived as a man's world, it is clear that women have made an important contribution to computing through the ages and continue to do so. This article looks at only a few of the many women whose work is fundamental to our advancement of computers and computer science. 

The examples shown in the article are amongst the more famous or noteworthy but this does not belie the huge contribution being made, every day, by female entrepreneurs and programmers around the world. 


Babbage (26th December 1791 to 18th October 1871) was an English mathematician, mechanical engineer and inventor best known for creating the concept of a programmable computer earning him the title The Father of Computing

The Analytical Engine was the successor to Babbage's Difference Engine, an automatic mechanical calculator designed to tabulate polynomial functions.

The Analytical Engine proposed the incorporation of arithmetic logic unit, control flow, conditional branching & loops and an integrated memory that made it, in design terms at least, the first general purpose programmable computer. 

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