The Flying Machine
In the eighteenth century, England and France found themselves in a race to industrialize. The Industrial Revolution transformed society from predominantly rural communities to great industrial cities. A new
social order was on the horizon that would forever change humanity. However, with access to power, and the machines that wielded it, there was a growing need for knowledge that could not be gained without
reading and writing skills. These skills were the gateway to the machines and were granted to men long before women.
Those women who did have access to literacy skills were mostly aristocrats like Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, who was born in 1815. She was not only classically trained, but her mother insisted that most of
her studies be focused on math and science. This focus was met with a great imagination and sense of
wonderment. Ada adored machines. She would hunt for any material she could fine that would feed her
curiosity. At age 12, she became obsessed with flying and decided she was going to build a steam powered flying machine. She would spend hours studying birds and knew that the wings of her machine needed to be in proportion to the body where the best place for the engine would be. Ada never built her machine, but 15
years later William Henson and John Stringfellow patented a similar machine in 1842. Imagine if her exposure to engineering, science and math was accompanied with the tools and support needed to create her flying machine. Think about how very different the history of female engineering would be. It was Louis Pasteur who lectured that “chance favours a prepared mind” and for 17 year old Ada this was
certainly true when she was introduced to mathematician Charles Babbage. This introduction changed Ada’s life forever and would put her on the path to writing the world’s first computer language by authoring very detailed notes that
outlined a method for calculating Bernoulli numbers using Babbage’s machine. Ada’s program was able to take complex formulas and turn them into easy calculations that could be coded on to punch cards. These cards could have been fed into Babbage’s Analytical Engine, a mechanical
computer that Babbage never built. Instead it was Ada who imagined what the future would look like. She knew that machines like Babbage’s could be used for general purpose and do anything if given the right set of instructions. She even considered that it could compose “elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.” Nonetheless, Ada’s mentors and tutors were conflicted by her skillful and logical thinking. They often would remark that what she was doing was men’s work and that it could weigh heavy on her weaker mind, because back then it was commonly believed that a woman’s physical makeup could not support such ‘brain-power’. Ada not only proved them wrong by publishing her work in 1843, a century before the modern computer age, we now know how very right she was.
As society advanced into the industrial revolution so did the machines. Steam gave way to electrical and we welcomed the age of modern computing. In the beginning, early computers were programmed by women during WWII. Jean Bartik studied mathematics and was seen to be a natural fit for this job. She and her peers would calculate the trajectory of rockets and artillery shells left from each weapon. Every weapon needed its own trajectory table for calculation. The entire task would take 30 hours. In 1945, Bartik accepted work with a new machine called the ENIAC.
This was electric, large and wasn’t slowed by clunky mechanical parts. Plus, it could do the calculations much faster. During this time, men enjoyed building
machines, like the ENIAC, while women were left to the tedious task of creating the programs. Computer programing became known as ‘women's work’ or
clerical tasks - not glamorous or well
Regardless, as big and fancy as this machine was it wasn’t performing well. Bartik and her team pulled up their sleeves and started problem solving.
They were able to increase the efficiency and get the ENIAC running at 20 seconds per calculation, 10 seconds less than it would take for a shell to hit
it’s target. Nonetheless, Baritk and her team of six women went unrecognized for their work. When the war was over Bartik moved to work on the UNIVAC, one of the first commercial computers that was easier to program thanks to Grace Hopper who is accredited with creating COBOL (A program that used words instead of numbers and allowed operators to give commands in English). Cobol is still used today.
By the 1950s and 60s, 30-50 percent of all programmers were women and salaries were rising. To help us
explore what it was like to work during this time, we contacted Martha Bryan, a retired computer programmer and supply teacher who lives in L'Etete, New Brunswick. Martha was a programmer at Greyhound Computer Corporation (a leasing company that provided computers or programming services to companies that didn’t have the staff or technology on hand). She joined the company after studying mathematics at the University of Vermont from (1964-68).
We asked her what interested her in computer programming. “I guess I was lucky to have landed where I did” Martha shared. “At 14 I never thought I’d be a computer programmer. I didn’t even know what a computer was. In high school they asked me what I wanted to major in for university. I didn’t have a clue. I figured I liked geometry so I chose math.” The timing was right for Martha because the University of Vermont received its very first computer and her advisor, Mr. Riggs, was eager to share its ability with his class.
Computers during this time were regarded as Third Generation and were the first to have integrated circuits. This was the beginning of smaller machines, even though they were still bulky and very large compared to today. These computers could calculate more than 34,000 instructions per second and had a memory of 8-64 KB, a vast improvement over the computers Bartik and Hopper worked on. Martha started taking the computer courses taught by Mr. Riggs and enjoyed these "because they were like doing puzzles".
During the summers she worked at a local bank in the computer department writing payroll programs for small businesses. “It was fun. I remembered thinking ‘you’re going to pay me to sit at a desk with a nice view and do puzzles all day!’ If someone’s payroll didn’t come out right you’d just debug the program by going back to figure out where the problem was and follow it down.” After graduation she decided to seek her fortune in San Francisco. “I didn’t have a job when I got there, but I knew not every business had a computer. I would go into the big buildings and ask if they had one. If they did and were interested in me, I would write an aptitude test. I remember enjoying these tests because I liked figuring things out and it was nothing more than finding the patterns. Little kids do this in kindergarten now”. Martha enjoyed the tests and had an eye for detail and the ability to see multiple answers. Again she was lucky, because Martha liked tests and puzzles. For others, these type of math questions that require the ability to see subtle differences and context specific problem solving was often seen as favouring men over women, as many young girls did not to study STEM related subjects like Martha.
Some researchers feel that these aptitude and personality tests helped shift computer programming away
from being female dominated to the predominantly male industry we see today. According to Statistics Canada although women make up 47% of the workforce compared to 24% in the 1950s, only 13% are engineers. Between 1991-2011 computer science influenced the greatest number of university-level workers, but only one-quarter were female.
Over the past two decades the number of young women in computer science has declined as have their salaries, with males making on average 17% more than their female counterparts. “I don’t remember there being any gender bias” Martha shared. “It was a time of women’s liberation when equal pay for equal work was a common discussion. I found work at the Greyhound Computer Corporation and was one of their first computer programmers. Our team was made up of 6 - 8 programmers and had a fair mix of males and females. I never felt that I was unappreciated or didn’t get an equal wage. It never crossed my mind.”
As more men became interested in the coding world, the gap widened and some, like Nathan Ensmenger, author of The Computer Boys Take Over, theorized that organizations created tools, like the aptitude and personality tests, to discourage women and, overtime, the false stereotype of an antisocial and mathematical genius behind the machine was created. As small personal computers grew in popularity they became associated with gaming. Many of the sports or war games were geared towards young boys and men. They had little interest to girls and women. This may be another reason behind the decline and lack of interest in computer programming. Between 1991 and 2011, the number of women between 25-34 years old working in computer science industries dropped by 4,000 jobs, with the greatest decline from 2001 to 2011, while young males saw an increase of 25,000 computer science jobs. When Martha was programming 30-50 percent of all programmers were women, now they make up only about a 22% of STEM jobs. We asked Martha what she thought of the ‘math-genius’ myth. “It’s not calculus, it’s much easier than higher math. It’s logic. You don’t need to be a math genius. It’s looking for repetition.” She recalled using Fortran, Cobol and Assembler. “Cobol was easy and used for business applications. It was programming using english commands. Assembler was more mathematical, because it was closer to what the machine would understand. In a business application you don’t need to be a math genius at all. A lot of kids are already doing logic thinking in the video games they play and the patterns they’re learning in class. That’s basically what you’re doing in programming; is seeing patterns. Repetition, loop and adding one each time with instructions getting tighter and tighter as you go on. They made it sound like coding was nothing spectacular. They made it sound like programming in the future will be like a clerk, or secretary, filling out forms...everyone would know coding - that’s what they were saying 50 years ago”.
2018 seems like light years from the mammoth machines that occupied computer rooms decades ago. Today, not everyone knows how to code and the gap between men and women in computer science is larger than ever. Men make up 72% of all STEM jobs in Canada. It's time to turn the tide and ignite a spark that will encourage more young women to enter STEM fields. To do this we need to see computer science through a different unbiased lens and disrupt the myths associated with it. Martha offered some good advice “Get a book and try it out. See if you like coding. If you like puzzles, you may be surprised at how much you’d like computer programming.” Try it out.
That’s exactly what needs to be encouraged and Sarah Ryan, program director of Brilliant Labs in Nova Scotia has been doing just that. This past August 16-year old Eliza Fraser reached out to Sarah. “She was interested in forming a coding club at her school and this sent my heart a-flutter!” Sarah shared with a smile. “It’s truly inspiring when students take ownership over their education by showing such initiative. She was about to enter grade eleven at Citadel High in Halifax, Nova Scotia and wanted to get a jump on strengthening her tech skills. Her interest stemmed from some introductory coding lessons that she attended over the summer. She was hooked right away.” It sounded to
us that Eliza was like Martha and drawn to coding. Sarah explained that “Eliza had recognized the value in not only understanding the technology around her, but also knowing how to create with it. She noticed that so many of her peers were consuming but not comprehending how their beloved devices worked.” “I believe that integrating technology into education is very important and teens my age don’t have enough in school learning opportunities. I would love to bring Brilliant Labs to Citadel High School” shared sixteen year old Eliza Fraser. Sarah and Eliza went to work figuring out how to get a coding club started at the school. “We first chatted about the options: a gathering at lunch, after school, or even a few hours on the weekends. Eliza decided that lunches would work best and everything else naturally evolved from there.” The two discussed what technology platforms would be both interesting and beneficial for the group. Eliza really liked the idea of adding an element of hardware
and Sarah had just the tech on-hand. “I happened to have a new set of Micro:bits and inventor kits with me, so this was a perfect opportunity to put them in the hands of students for feedback.” Eliza found a small (but mighty) group of her peers and formed what is now the first all-girls coding club at Citadel High (although boys are welcome to join, of course).
Eliza’s teacher-advisor, Ms. Melissa Deveaux, is a math teacher and a woman who can code. “It’s important that young people understand the technology behind the devices they use so frequently and I’m happy young women like Eliza are getting involved in computer science early in life”. Eliza is doing exactly what Martha suggested. Thanks to Sarah she not only has the new inventor's kits, but she has the book that goes along with it and is trying it out. “We have been using the inventor's kits for a few weeks and are going through the book doing different set ups. Everyone is in grade 11 and most are in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program. We’re all interested in what coding is and the careers that can come out of it!” After just over a month exploring the Micro:bits the group is excited to explore new equipment and coding platforms. Sarah hopes the next project may include website design or wearable technology. “We can’t wait to see how this coding group progresses and Brilliant Labs is happy to support them along the way.” Happily it looks like Eliza may be one young woman who will help turn the tide and lessen the gender gap in computer science fields. “I am now even more interested in considering a degree in computer science” she said with a smile.
Imagine if Ada Lovelace’s flying machine had the support to be taken from paper to air. Intellectually she had everything that was needed to make that dream come true, but without support no12 year old, whether they are in early 19th century England or in 21st century Atlantic Canada, could make that machine fly. Technology is all around us and we are embarking on the next evolution of computing power. Morgan Stanley says quantum computing will have "far reaching consequences for many sectors” and is being seen as the fourth industrial revolution. Just as the first revolution needed more knowledgeable people who could read and write, the skills of the fourth will be to see patterns, to be a critical thinker, to create, to collaborate and to continuously learn using technology. Now is the time to encourage young women to try computer science. If we don’t encourage our daughters by giving them the support and tools they need today... they will never see their flying machine take flight.
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