Pioneering Computer Science

Celebrating Ada Lovelace Day and the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths.

By Catriona Clarke, Communications Officer, Wellcome Sanger Institute

Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Ada Lovelace Day celebrates women in Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM). In honour of the day, we asked some of our software developers and bioinformaticians to tell us about women who have inspired them in their own work. Below were just some of their suggestions.

Grace Hopper and Margaret Hamilton are both women whose work is inspiring and still relevant today. I hope the recognition of them and other women on Ada Lovelace Day inspires women and girls into STEM careers.”

Christopher Harrison, Senior Software Developer at the Wellcome Sanger Institute

Ada Lovelace

Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, was born in December 1815 to Lady Anne Isabella “Annabella” Byron, and poet Lord George Byron. Lord and Lady Byron’s marriage was a short and unhappy one, with the “mad, bad and dangerous” Lord Byron allegedly having an affair with his own half-sister. When baby Ada was only five weeks old, Annabella left her husband, taking their daughter with her. Ada never saw her father again, and was only allowed to see a portrait of him when she was 20 years old.

Worried that Ada might inherit her father’s erratic behaviour, her mother steeped her in mathematics and science education, and Ada soon became obsessed. Immodest about her own intelligence, Annabella wrote to leading scientist of the day Michael Faraday, saying that Ada had “faculties that usually do not co-exist. The deepest analysis, with brilliant imagination for ever playing on the surface of those grave and fathomless depths.”

Aged 17, Ada was introduced to mathematician Charles Babbage, and it was her work with Babbage that put her down in history as a pioneer of computer science. Babbage was in the process of designing the Analytical Engine, a machine that could perform complex mathematical calculations. Ada translated an article on the engine from French into English, and in doing so added 20,000 words of her own notes on the machine to the article. Ada was able to see beyond just using the Analytical Engine for calculations, and theorised that it could be used to create art and music if programmed to do so. In short, she wrote the first computer programme.

Diagram of an algorithm for the Analytical Engine for the computation of Bernoulli numbers, from Sketch of The Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage by Luigi Menabrea with notes by Ada Lovelace. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper was born in New York City in 1906, and was a computer scientist and United States Navy rear admiral.

Interested in science from a young age, Grace studied mathematics and physics at Vassar College, graduating in 1928. She then went on to receive a master’s degree and PhD in mathematics from Yale University, one of the first women to do so.

Text Box: Commodore Grace Hopper, USNR official portrait
Commodore Grace Hopper, USNR official portrait.

She tried to follow in the footsteps of her great-grandfather, Alexander Wilson Russell, who was an admiral in the US Navy, and enlist for World War II. She was rejected on the grounds of her low weight, and being 34, she was deemed too old. By this time, she was an associate professor in mathematics at Vassar College, and was able to take a leave of absence to join the United States Navy Reserve. Grace was assigned to work on Mark I computers at Harvard University, and continued to do so, and serve in the Navy Reserves, after the war ended.

Grace believed that computer programming should be written in English, rather than the then-traditional coded symbols. Her idea was not accepted for several years as it was thought computers could never understand English. During this time, she created her first compiler – a machine that could translate computer code from a programming language into a common language.

She retired from the Naval Reserve several times, but was recalled to active duty each time, until she finally retired as the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the US Navy at 79 years, 8 months and 5 days. She was given the rank of commodore, later renamed rear admiral.

Margaret Hamilton

Not only was Margaret Hamilton one of the first software engineers, but was also the first person to coin the term “software engineer”. Margaret studied mathematics and philosophy at Earlham College, Indiana, before accepting a job at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, programming software to predict the weather.

In 1961, she joined the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment Project at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, working on defence programmes for the US Air Force. Of joining this team, Margaret has said:

“What they used to do when you came into this organization as a beginner, was to assign you this program which nobody was able to ever figure out or get to run. When I was the beginner they gave it to me as well. And what had happened was it was tricky programming, and the person who wrote it took delight in the fact that all of his comments were in Greek and Latin. So I was assigned this program and I actually got it to work. It even printed out its answers in Latin and Greek. I was the first one to get it to work.”

Margaret Hamilton standing next to the navigation software that she and her MIT team produced for the Apollo Project. Image Credit: Draper Laboratory, restored by Adam Cuerden

Margaret went on to develop software for the Apollo missions, and made it her role to find potential bugs in the system, or errors that astronauts could make, to avoid catastrophes from happening. She often brought her young daughter, Lauren, to work with her on evenings and weekends. As Lauren once tried to play astronaut, she pushed a button on their simulator that crashed the system. Margaret was told that astronauts were “trained never to make a mistake”, but Command Module Pilot of Apollo 8, Jim Lovell, made exactly the same error as Lauren shortly after. Margaret’s team were able to fix the software within a few hours, and protective measures were built into software for all future Apollo missions.

In 2016, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honour a civilian can receive, by Barack Obama.

The Women of Bletchley Park

Of the nearly 10,000 people who made up the Bletchley Park codebreaking operation during World War II, roughly three quarters of them were women. Bletchley Park ran a cryptic crossword competition in the Daily Telegraph in 1942; those who could solve it in 12 minutes were approached by the military, recruited, and sworn to secrecy about the nature of their work. They decoded German and Japanese messages, and were sometimes able to discover the location of submarine vessels and attack first. It wasn’t until the 1970s when wartime information in the UK became declassified, that the work of these codebreakers was known more widely.

These women have not just inspired staff at the Sanger Institute, but scientists around the world. It is important to take the time, on occasions such as Ada Lovelace Day, to look back at their incredible lives and work. You never know who could be motivated to become the next great software engineer or codebreaker.

I think the stories of the women of Bletchley Park (codebreakers in WW2) are very interesting and inspirational. Despite initial doubts, they proved to be very capable in their roles.”

Beth Sampher, Bioinformatics Apprentice, Wellcome Sanger Institute

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