Genderquake

It is generally agreed that there have been limited choices of employment for most women outside the home throughout the last few centuries.

Considering some of these opportunities, it seems that in the textiles industry women’s work was to programme the looms with punched cards, but it was also a woman who saw this and realised that this binary code was perfect for programming computers.

In offices around the world women’s typing was supposed to be intended only for the eyes of men, the bosses.  However the development of new techniques by Pitman and Gregg made shorthand a private female code, another language, another code.

In the production of miniature components women were small, weak and powerless but it was their hands that were more agile, dexterous and best suited to micro processing thus replacing men on the factory floor.

As it turns out, women have not merely had a minor part to play in the emergence of digital machines.  When computers were vast systems of transistors and valves which needed to be coaxed into action, it was women who turned them on.  When computers became the miniaturised circuits of silicon chips, it was women who assembled them.  Theirs is not a subsidiary role because when computers were virtually real machines it was a woman who wrote the software on which they ran.

Often called the first computer programmer Ada Lovelace was undoubtedly an interesting character. The question is still open for debate, was she a promiscuous, spoilt society heiress or a gifted mathematician and original thinker?  Some (man) called her not only irrelevant but delusional – I can’t remember his name now.

As the brilliant daughter of Lord Byron, her mother feared that Ada would inherit her father’s volatile ‘poetic’ temperament, so she raised her under a strict regimen of science, logic, and mathematics. Ada had a fascination with machines from childhood, designing fanciful boats and steam flying machines, and poring over the diagrams of the new inventions of the Industrial Revolution that filled the scientific magazines of the time.

In correspondence with Charles Babbage, who was working on the ideas for a machine that is now recognised as a forerunner of the modern computer, Ada demonstrated her gift for mathematics and was described by him as “the enchantress of numbers”.  She was introduced to him by another female scientist famous in her day, the mathematician Mary Somerville, who mentored Ada during her relatively short life.

Babbage was impressed by the mathematical skills Ada possessed and invited her to make notes and translate a piece in Italian written by Luigi Menabrea describing Babbage’s ‘analytical engine’, so that it could be published in England.  Her footnotes include what is recognised as the first algorithm intended to be processed by a machine, while she also speculated on its future ability to create graphics and complex music.

She must have inherited some of her Father’s brilliant poeticism, however, as she also developed a vision of the capability of computers to go beyond mere calculating or number-crunching while others, including Babbage himself, focused only on those capabilities.  Her mind-set of “poetical science” led her to ask basic questions about the Analytical Engine examining how individuals and society relate to technology as a collaborative tool.  Maybe she was just more practically prescient than the focused men around her?

Her lasting legacy as role model for girls and young women considering careers in technology is remembered on Ada Lovelace Day (this year it’s on 14th October 2014) which is dedicated to the celebration of the achievements of women in science and technology.

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