Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Ada Lovelace Day

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day in celebration of women in technology everywhere, named in honour of Ada, who was Babbage’s assistant and the world’s first computer programmer. About six months ago, I signed a pledge to say that I would write a blog today about a woman I admire in technology, and I have chosen to write about Susan Laflin.

I wrote my first programs as a second year undergraduate at Birmingham University, on a mainframe that probably had as much processing power as an iPhone, and cost several million pounds. The alpha geek who taught me was a grey-haired woman. Thanks to her, my stereotype of a ‘geek’ has never been a spotty, inarticulate male. (That’s my stereotype of ‘student’.)

Dr Laflin taught us about pre-tested and post-tested loops, Dijkstra’s theorem, and much else that I can’t remember. She also told wonderful anecdotes that made her seem wiser still, and made the world of computers seem fascinating and rewarding to the enquiring, creative mind.

She told us about the first British mainframe at Manchester University (when the British universities were still ahead of Caltech and MIT) and how they used to debug their programs using the command ‘hoot n’. Your program played a tune as it executed, and if the tune went wonky, you had an idea of whereabouts in your code you needed to look for the bug. That means of course, the code must have been running on a mainframe that executed about four instructions per second!

If you Google the name of this fantastically enthusiastic woman, you will see that she retired in 2000, is a prominent figure in Wargaming, and researches family history. I’m pleased that the stuff about how many children she has, that normally clogs up women’s biographies, is low down in the rankings.


Mel said...

Well done you! And well done her!

Teya said...

i didnt know you were a programmer!!

Gordie said...

I was a philosophy major, computer science minor, back in the day when you were a cute little girl.