The first programmers of the ENIAC, who were all women, were selected from the top ranks of “human computers” or those who performed mathematical calculations manually. The assumption was that the work of “coding” for a computer known as the ENIAC would be similar to the calculations performed by the human computers. When the ENIAC women started their jobs, the work that they encountered required new innovations to solve problems that engineers did not account for. In doing their job, the ENIAC women ventured into unknown territory and are now recognized as inventing the earliest form of computer programming. To be able to program the ENIAC, the women studied the machine’s design and figured out how it worked. They had to master the machine’s wiring to be able to program this early type of analog computer. But the logical and creative patterns that were necessary to set up the computer to solve a problem were analogous what computer programmers do today without manually plugging wires.
Grace Hopper is widely recognized as one of the most influential pioneers of computer science. She was a visionary, an inventor, an educator, and an advocate. Anyone who develops software today can see in Hopper’s work the origins of key principles and patterns that are fundamental to modern programming languages. She was one of the first programmers on the first computers in the United States, the Harvard Mark I.
During the emergence of the commercial computer industry, she worked on the UNIVAX, where she developed the conceptual building blocks for human-oriented computer languages. Hopper designed and developed the “A-0” which is recognized at the world first compiler for a computer. As an inventor, Hopper was not inclined to cloister herself in her lab. Instead, she built alliances and mentored younger programmers. She was the leader of major projects such as the development of the COBOL programming language, which was modeled after her invention of the FLOW-MATIC language. She effectively used her excellent communication skills and strove to make her vision and her inventions visible and usable by many people.
What would your grandmother think today? Grace Hopper saw the future role of computers as key to solving global challenges in our world today.
In Grace’s words:
It has become increasingly important that we make today's decisions in the light of possible future events. We are living in a world of increasing population, of increasing shortages; this will mean that we will need better information for management, faster, to make decisions in a much more complicated world.... This need will mean an increased use of computers not only by the large companies, but by small activities and the computers will reach through everything and into everything. (Hopper, 1976a, p.9)
The first step is to learn about coding and how you can use it to contribute to making a better world. Meet others who are programmers and technologists and see their creations! The work that we do encompasses everything from the sciences, to the arts, to libraries, to mobile apps and social media!
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