Ada Lovelace Day – March 24 2010

Admiral Grace Hopper lived for a long time after her first claim to fame as one of the builders of COBOL. I met her while teaching at the U. S. Naval Academy in the 1980’s. She gave lectures on Computer Science and handed out “nanoseconds” to every midshipman in her lectures. A “nanosecond” was a length of wire through which a bit of data could pass in one nanosecond. It gave structure to the concept of data transfer. She did not like Ada (the language) much. COBOL was always first in her heart. But she did inspire the midshipmen, both female and male, with her fervor and intelligence. Me, I liked Ada the language and the fact that it was named after such an important player in the history of computing.
A side story from my academy teaching days. I once asked my “Computer Science for Rocks and Jocks” class an exam question on history as follows: “What claim to fame does the Countess of Lovelace have on the history of computing?” I expected some of the dumb Jocks who had not read the material to make jokes related to Linda lovelace. I would then be able to point out that Ada, the Countess of Lovelace, was not only the first woman programmer, but the first person (man or woman) to describe how to program a computer. Only two students rose to the bait. Unfortunately, one of them was a female midshipman. She may have learned the most valuable lessen of all: Do not jump to conclusions. It can be embarrassing.

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