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Women of Computing


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Women have made vital contributions to the field of computing. Many women served as programmers at the dawn of the computing age, and a number of key pioneers developed highly influential innovations to support the emergence of computing as a dominant technology. Yet such trailblazers are often unknown or under-appreciated.

This proposed set celebrates six notable women in computing and provides an educational building experience to support LEGO fans of all ages in learning about the history of women in technology. The six Women of Computing are mathematicians, computer scientists, and more:

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852): Lovelace is best known for her work with inventor and mathematician Charles Babbage and his Analytical Engine, a proposed 19th century calculating machine. Lovelace was ahead of her time in predicting how the engine could be used, envisioning applications that went well beyond simple calculations. She understood that the engine represented what historian Doron Swade called "the first artificial intelligence machine." Lovelace published what many consider the first computer program as a sequence of operations; for this, she is often called the first programmer. While the full Analytical Engine was never built, this vignette represents a partial model that can be seen at the Science Museum in London. Joining Lovelace is her cat, Mrs. Puff.

Grace Hopper (1906-1992): A trailblazing computer scientist and rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, Hopper spent more than 40 years shaping the world of computing. One of the first modern programmers, she helped bring computing to the masses in new and fundamental ways. She was a lead programmer on the Mark I, an early general-purpose computer developed at Harvard University. She is credited by many as having invented the first compiler, which translates code into another language. She played a leading role in the development of COBOL, a highly influential programming language using English words that was incorporated into untold business and government applications. And she was a key driver on the Universal Automatic Computer (UNIVAC) I, a general-purpose computer that debuted in the 1950s and revolutionized how businesses worked. A portion of the UNIVAC is depicted in this vignette along with a model of Hopper's desk, which features a backward-running clock, a moth (considered the first literal computer "bug"), a pirate flag, and more. Hopper is holding a coil of wire that she used to publicly demonstrate the concepts of microseconds and nanoseconds.

Betty Holberton (1917-2001): Developed in the 1940s, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) was the first programmable general-purpose digital computer. Betty (Snyder) Holberton was one of six pioneering women who led the programming of the ENIAC, which functioned in real-time but required extensive preparation for each calculation. Holberton and Jean Jennings Bartik, the two lead programmers, are depicted with the ENIAC in this vignette; the other four women were Kay (McNulty) Mauchly, Marlyn (Wescoff) Meltzer, Fran (Bilas) Spence, and Ruth (Lichterman) Teitelbaum. After ENIAC, Holberton continued to be highly influential in computing. Her accomplishments include co-developing and operating the code that ran UNIVAC I and developing the UNIVAC's magnetic tape input/output system; inventing breakpoints in computer debugging; standardizing the symbols used in computing flow charts; devising the first sort-merge generator, "a program that wrote a program," as colleague Grace Hopper described it; co-developing instructions for the BINAC computer; and making major contributions to the COBOL and FORTRAN languages.

Jean Jennings Bartik (1924-2011): Bartik was one of six women who led the programming of the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), a room-sized computer at the University of Pennsylvania with thousands of switches, wires, and movable "function tables," as depicted in this vignette. Bartik started her career as a "human computer," making calculations for the U.S. Army, but eventually became co-lead programmer on the ENIAC along with Betty Holberton. With her ENIAC colleagues, Bartik made significant computing advances, developing, for example, basic programming techniques such as subroutines and nesting. She and Holberton also created the ballistics trajectory program that was used to publicly demonstrate ENIAC's capabilities in 1946. Following ENIAC, Bartik worked on the BINAC, UNIVAC, and other computing systems.

Gladys West (1930-): West is best known for her work in developing the Global Positioning System (GPS), which provides geolocation information for countless applications. She began her 40-year career with the U.S. Navy as a human computer, performing mathematical computations. But she quickly moved on to programming computers, and she made important strides on a study of the orbits of Pluto and Neptune and on sensing the ocean surface on Earth. Later, she used complex algorithms to program calculations for a highly accurate model of the Earth that takes into account gravity, tides, and other forces. This work was the basis for what ultimately became the orbit for GPS. In her vignette, she is seen with a GPS model and an office scene featuring a globe and GPS tracking data.

Annie Easley (1933-2011): Easley played numerous important roles over more than 30 years with NASA. At what is now the John Glenn Research Center, she began as a human computer, specializing in mathematical computations. As computing machines became prevalent, Easley became a math technician and programmer. She is best known for the software she contributed to Centaur upper-stage rockets, which launched space probes to Mars and the outer solar system and helped lay the foundations for launching NASA's space shuttles. Easley also studied energy applications including batteries, solar, and wind, and gave back to her community as an equal employment opportunity counselor. She is seen in this vignette in the central control room of NASA's Lewis Engine Research Building, with a model of a Titan rocket bearing a Centaur upper stage.

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