BLOG Hidden Heroines
David Schmid

A while ago, I conducted research into Ada Lovelace's Note G, a cornerstone document that showcases her profound understanding and foresight into what we now recognize as computer science. Since I have never formally published my notes on Ada Lovelace's notes, I planned to publish a blog post in honor of Women's Day. Unfortunately, other circumstances arose today, which led to a pause in polishing my intended post. It will have to wait a bit longer than anticipated.

It is an undeniable reality that women often work behind the scenes, contributing significantly to various fields, yet they do not always receive the credits they deserve.

In my personal life, the embodiment of the heroines working tirelessly behind the scenes are two remarkable women: my mother, Esther, and my wife, Kate.

My mother raised four children, including myself (maybe not always being the easiest one :-D), nurturing our curiosities and ambitions with constant support and love. Her dedication has been a guiding light in my life.

My wife takes the lion's share in shaping our kids into the great individuals they are becoming, all while supporting me in countless ways. She modestly hides her talents, and I have only recently discovered her know-how in web design when assisting me in projects, and she has become invaluable by now. Her creativity and intelligence shine through, and yet she remains so humble, always putting family first.

Much like the women in my life, countless women have made significant, often unrecognized contributions to the development of technology and science. This seems especially true in the fields of programming. Ada Lovelace is only one example.

Maybe it was the marginalization of women in science and the "earlier" perception of computer science and programming as fields for "outsiders" lacking practical impact or scientific merit that created an unexpected synergy. It might have been this environment where women could find a scientific niche for themselves and therefore profoundly contribute to the field's evolution.

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) wrote down the first computer algorithm. She is therefore considered the first computer programmer. And her notes on Charles Babbage's proposed general-purpose computer not only showcase her mathematical genius but also her visionary perspective on computing. She was the first person to understand the potential to go beyond numerical calculations, envisioning it as a device capable of processing any content that could be notationally encoded.

Ada Lovelace is a role model who transcends the intellectual reach of those limited by societal stereotypes.

Bletchley Park during World War II was another setting for women in computer science and cryptography to show their intellect and determination, yet often overlooked. Significant contributions were made by thousands of women playing a crucial role in deciphering messages encrypted by the German Enigma and Lorenz machines and therefore shortening the war and saving lives.

Of course, within this context, it is essential to also mention Alan Turing as a leading figure in this collaborative effort. Yet, his post-war fate rather contrasts with the social prejudices of the time, as he was later prosecuted for his homosexuality...

Another pioneering woman I would like to highlight is Grace Hopper, who was instrumental in the creation of the first compiler, a fundamental tool that translates written code into binary and therefore laid the groundwork for the development of high-level programming languages, which has had a lasting impact on the world of computing.

Another setting was the NASA space program, where men took the spotlight for the first steps on the moon, but women played a crucial role in the success of these missions — a success that, with today's technologies, has yet to be repeated.

Among these "hidden figures" was Margaret Hamilton, who served as the director of the Software Engineering Division, developing the onboard flight software for the Apollo missions. Her work was pioneering not just for its direct impact on the success of these missions but also for her contributions to the establishment of software engineering as a recognized discipline. At a time when software engineering was not yet formally acknowledged as a field of study, Hamilton's approach to software development laid the foundation for many of the best practices in the industry today.

Now I am sorry that my time and space are limited. I could go on mentioning pioneers like Radia Perlman, Frances Allen, Barbara Liskov, Shafi Goldwasser, Elisabeth Oswald, Hedy Lamarr...

These women with their resilience, innovation and intellect brake through the barriers of time and pave the way for future generations of engineers and thinkers, ensuring a vibrant landscape of innovation and discovery.



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