08 March 2017
by Sophie Hewson
Ada Lovelace is often cited as the world’s first computer programmer, which is pretty remarkable as computers didn’t exist at the time she was working! Notably, she was able to see the potential for computers beyond simple maths, and was affectionately referred to as the ‘Enchantress of Numbers’ by Charles Babbage.
Born to British nobility in 1815, Lovelace was very interested in mathematics, and in 1842/43 was asked to translate an article on Babbage's yet-to-be-built Analytical Engine. To complement the article Lovelace added a set of notes (A-G) to help explain the Engine's function; a difficult but necessary task, as many other scientists didn’t really grasp the concept and the British establishment was uninterested. In note G (above) she describes an algorithm for the Analytical Engine to compute Bernoulli numbers. The engine has now been recognised as an early computer model and her notes as a description of a computer and software.
A beautiful (if controversial) film star in the 1930’s, Lamarr was also a keen inventor! Despite being self-taught with no formal training, in 1942, with composer George Antheil, she patented designs for a new frequency-hopping, spread-spectrum technology which could be used by the Navy to remotely control torpedoes. Sending radio signals from randomised & different frequency channels would make it very difficult for enemy agents to understand the communication – an early type of encryption technology. Which has been essential for the development of today’s wireless technologies, including wi-fi and Bluetooth!
Writer Richard Rhodes recalls Lamarr's response to her Electronic Frontier Foundation ‘Pioneer Award’ in 1997 “When they called her up to tell her she would get the award, her first words were, Hedy Lamarr being Hedy Lamarr, ‘Well, it's about time.’”
Her nicknames included Amazing Grace, the Queen of Software and Grandma COBOL. Navy Rear Admiral Hopper helped invent some of the early English-language programming languages. She is most famous for creating the Common Business-Oriented Language (COBOL), which was based on the FLOW-MATIC language that she had designed in 1958. She also worked on the Mark I computer, an electro-mechanical computer based on Analytical Engine. Before the invention of such language-based programming, computers spoke exclusively in binary code, which at the time was illegible to human beings. Hopper was convinced that if programming were produced in a form that anyone could read, then there would be more programmers, and obviously she was right! While COBOL isn’t exactly the cutting edge of programming technology anymore, it is remembered as revolutionising programming. On November 22, 2016, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
“The most important thing I've accomplished, other than building the compiler, is training young people. They come to me, you know, and say, 'Do you think we can do this?' I say, "Try it." And I back 'em up. They need that. I keep track of them as they get older and I stir 'em up at intervals so they don't forget to take chances.” - Grace Hopper.
Dropped calls and busy signals are annoying but we’d have a lot more of them if it weren’t for Dr. Erna Hoover! She revolutionised modern technology by inventing a telephony switching computer program that kept phones functioning at peak time under high volume & stressful loads.Her 1971 patent was among one of the first software patents ever issued. Even more impressive was that she worked on her idea while in the hospital following the birth of her second daughter!
“To my mind it was kind of common sense ... I designed the executive program for handling situations when there are too many calls, to keep it operating efficiently without hanging up on itself. Basically it was designed to keep the machine from throwing up its hands and going berserk!” Erna Schneider Hoover, 2008