Friday, December 18, 2009

Nanoseconds can be important in the right game

You probably already know - or SHOULD know - that computing and the computer you so much take for granted today owe their existence, in large part, to women. Men helped, of course, here and there, but women provided much of the brainpower it took to come up with such a complex contraption.

The first computer programmer, by definition at least, is considered to be Ada Lovelace (1802-1852), the only legitimate child of Lord Byron. She encoded an algorithm (Al Gore rhythm?) in a form to be processed by a machine. She was inspired to do so by Charles Babbage's invention of what was then known as an "Analytical Engine". She also envisioned that someday computers could become much more than simply number crunchers. Even Babbage didn't dream of that.

Women have been a part of the development of the computer and of programming it down through the years ever since. My personal favorite is a lady named Grace Hopper (pictured at the top of this post.) Grace was a rather weirdly wonderful (somewhat eccentric, I mean) brainy lady who rose to the rank of Admiral in the U.S. Navy, and who had a profound influence on early computing. She used to hand out lengths of wire, somewhat short of 12 inches in length to U.S. Naval Academy cadets at Annapolis with an admonition to "remember your nanoseconds" (The wires being the length of space an electromagnetic wave travels in a billionth of a second.) The point was to remind her computer programming students not to waste nanoseconds. Occasionally she would bring in a 1000-foot roll of wire to show them what a microsecond looked like in those terms. Well, I guess you had to be there.

Grace is credited with inventing the early computer programming language COBOL and developed the first compiler. Words and phrases like "subroutines", "formula translation", "relative addressing", linking loader", "code optimization", and "symbolic manipulation", are still fundamental to digital computing and exist in large part because of Graces pioneering in the field. If you've ever had a "bug" in your program, you owe that word to Grace as well because ever since she removed an actual dead moth from her equipment, she referred to corrective programming as "debugging" work. She once claimed she forced computers to learn English because she was too lazy to learn theirs. Not true, of course - she understood their language perfectly well- but many programmers today are thankful they can type programs in (mostly) simple English.

Thank you, as usual, Wikipedia, for helping me fill in specifics.


  1. @Lidian - Indeed. Without them, none of us would have never met, probably. Perhaps that's an exaggeration. :)

  2. Relax Max, I'm genuinely grateful. I didn't know about either of the ladies you describe and I should have.

    Interestingly enough, I've never had any trouble with programming and making computers do things my way (or math or many of those other things "women don't do well") but I was not aware that women were so pivotal early. (Though I was familiar with Ada programming which is a very interesting language).

    And I should have been.

    Thanks to you, now I am. I am genuinely grateful.

  3. Once upon a time, when I was a mere slip of a thing I learnt to write programs in Cobol. It was a minority pursuit in those days. One or two years later, maybe two, when one of my sons was studying computer science he phoned me to say he had to study "antique" programming languages, one of which was Cobol. I have never felt the same about it since.



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