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It was an unguarded moment for my church-going, straight-laced handyman & landscaper, “ I am not sure if I am ready to trust a woman leader”, and finally the loss of first woman Presidential candidate in the US, that led me to ruminate about Women and Leadership and indulge in my most “ time suck” activities, google and peruse through Wikipedia.

I had known about this, but I was fascinated to reconfirm that the first programmer in the world was a woman, and daughter of the famed poet, Lord Byron, no less. The first Programmer in the World, Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace nee Byron; was born in 1815 and was the only legitimate child of the poet laureate, Lord Byron and his wife Annabella. A month after Ada was born, Byron separated from his wife and forever left England. Ada’s mother remained bitter towards Lord Byron and promoted Ada’s interest in mathematics and logic in an effort to prevent her from developing what she saw as the insanity seen in her father.

Ada grew up being trained and tutored by famous mathematicians and scientists. She established a relationship with various scientists and authors, like Charles Dickens, etc..   Ada described her approach as “poetical science”[6] and herself as an “Analyst & Metaphysician”.

As a teenager, Ada’s prodigious mathematical talents, led her to have British mathematician Charles Babbage, as her mentor. By then Babbage had become very famous and had come to be known as ‘the father of computers’. Babbage was reputed to have developed the Analytical Engine. Between 1842 and 1843, Ada translated an article on the Analytical Engine, which she supplemented with an elaborate set of notes, simply called Notes. These notes contain what many consider to be the first computer program—that is, an algorithm designed to be carried out by a machine. As a result, she is often regarded as the first computer programmer. Ada died at a very young age of 36.

As an ode to her, the mathematical program used in the Defense Industry has been named Ada. And to celebrate our first Programmer, the second Tuesday of October has been named Ada Lovelace Day. ALD celebrates the achievement of women in Science, Technology and Engineering and Math (STEM). It aims to increase the profile of women in STEM and, in doing so, create new role models who will encourage more girls into STEM careers and support women already working in STEM.

Most of us applauded Benedict Cumberbatch’s turn as Alan Turing in the movie,  Imitation Game. We got to know about the contribution, that Alan Turning and his code breaking team at the Bletchley Park, played in singularly cracking the German Enigma code and how the code helped them to proactively know when the Germans were about to attack the Allied sites and in the process could conduct preemptive strikes. In the movie, Kiera Knightly played the role of Joan Clark Joan was an English code-breaker at the British Intelligence wing, MI5, at Bletchley Park during the World War II. She was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1947, because of the important part she essayed in decoding the famed German Enigma code along with Alan Turing and the team.

Joan Clark attended Cambridge University with a scholarship and there she gained a double first degree in mathematics. But the irony of it all was that she was denied a full degree, as till 1948, Cambridge only awarded degrees to men. The head of the Code-breakers group, Hugh Alexander,  described her as “one of the best in the section”, yet while promoting Joan Clark, they had initially given her a job title of a typist, as women were not allowed to be a Crypto Analyst. Clarke became deputy head of British Intelligence unit, Hut 8 in 1944.  She was paid less than the men and in the later years she believed that she was prevented from progressing further because of her gender.

In World War II the  US Army was tasked with a Herculean job to calculate the trajectories of ballistic missiles. The problem was that each equation took 30 hours to complete, and the Army needed thousands of them. So the Army, started to recruit every mathematician they could find. They placed ads in newspapers;  first in Philadelphia, then in New York City, then in far out west in places like Missouri, seeking women “computers” who could hand-compute the equations using mechanical desktop calculators. The selected applicants would be stationed at the  University of Pennsylvania in Philly. At the height of this program, the US Army employed more than 100 women calculators. One of the last women to join the team was a farm girl named Jean Jennings. To support the project, the US Army-funded an experimental project to automate the trajectory calculations. Engineers John Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchly, who are often termed as the Inventors of Mainframe computers, began designing the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC as it was called.  That experimenting paid off: The 80-foot long, 8-foot tall, black metal behemoth, which contained hundreds of wires, 18,000 vacuum tubes, 40 8-foot cables, and 3000 switches, would become the first all-electric computer called ENIAC.

When the ENIAC was nearing completion in the spring of 1945, the US Army randomly selected six women, computer programmers,  out of the 100 or so workers and tasked them with programming the ENIAC. The engineers handed the women the logistical diagrams of ENIAC’s 40 panels and the women learned from there. They had no programming languages or compilers. Their job was to program ENIAC to perform the firing table equations they knew so well.

The six women—Francis “Betty” Snyder Holberton, Betty “Jean” Jennings Bartik, Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum, and Frances Bilas Spence—had no documentation and no schematics to work with.

There was no language, no operating system, the women had to figure out what the computer was, how to interface with it, and then break down a complicated mathematical problem into very small steps that the ENIAC could then perform.  They physically hand-wired the machine,  using switches, cables, and digit trays to route data and program pulses. This might have been a very complicated and arduous task. The ballistic calculations went from taking 30 hours to complete by hand to taking mere seconds to complete on the ENIAC.

Unfortunately, ENIAC was not completed in time, hence could not be used during World War II. But 6 months after the end of the war, on February 14, 1946 The ENIAC was announced as a modern marvel in the US. There was praise and publicity for the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, Eckert and Mauchly were heralded as geniuses. However, none of the key programmers, all the women were not introduced in the event. Some of the women appeared in photographs later, but everyone assumed they were just models, perfunctorily placed to embellish the photograph.

After the war, the government ran a campaign asking women to leave their jobs at the factories and the farms so returning soldiers could have their old jobs back. Most women did, leaving careers in the 1940s and 1950s and perforce were required to become homemakers. Unfortunately, none of the returning soldiers knew how to program the ENIAC.

All of these women programmers had gone to college at a time when most men in this country didn’t even go to college. So the Army strongly encouraged them to stay, and for the most part, they did, becoming the first professional programmers, the first teachers of modern programming, and the inventors of tools that paved the way for modern software.

The Army opened the ENIAC up to perform other types of non-military calculations after the war and Betty Holberton and Jean Jennings converted it to a stored-program machine. Betty went on to invent the first sort routine and help design the first commercial computers, the UNIVAC and the BINAC, alongside Jean. These were the first mainframe computers in the world.

Today the Indian IT  industry is at $ 160 B and is at 7.7 %age of the Indian GDP and employs approximately 2.5 Million direct employees and a very high percentage of them are women. Ginni Rommeti, Meg Whitman are the CEOs of IBM and HP while Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook. They along with Padmasree Warrior, ex CTO of CISCO have been able to crack the glass ceiling.    India boasts of Senior Leadership in leading IT companies like Facebook, IBM, CapGemini, HP, Intel  etc.. who happen to be women. At our company, ZIF, we are making an effort to put in policies, practices, culture that attract, retain, and nurture women leaders in IT. The IT industry can definitely be a major change agent in terms of employing a large segment of women in India and can be a transformative force for new vibrant India. We must be having our Indian Ada, Joan, Jean and Betty and they are working at ISRO, at Bangalore and Sriharikota, at the Nuclear Plants at Tarapur.

About the author

March 10, 2020

Sumit Ganguli

Sumit Ganguli is the CEO and Member of the Board at ZIF. He is focused on New Technologies around AI led Predictive Analytics, Smart Machines, IT Process Automation etc.. through ZIF and is promoting the concept of ZIF in IT Infrastructure Management space.

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