Mary K. Hawes: The First to Identify the Need for COBOL

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“A ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are built for” is a version of this famous quote attributed to Grace Hopper, often referred to as the Mother of COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language). Even though she played a significant part in the history of computers for her many technical accomplishments, particularly for her role in the development of the COBOL Language, there were other women who were involved in COBOL’s history as well.

For example, Mary K Hawes is another key figure, who reportedly recognized the need for a Common Business Language in Accounting and initiated the process to develop the COBOL language. She is an often-forgotten woman in COBOL history who is overshadowed by the later significant contributions of Grace Hopper.

How the Idea Started

In March 1959, Mary Hawes was working as a senior product planning analyst for the Electro Data Division of Burroughs Corporation, a manufacturer of business equipment. According to information recorded in Proposing COBOL, the National Museum of American History, at that time, she called for “computer users and manufacturers to create a new computer language—one that could run on different brands of computers and perform accounting tasks such as payroll calculations, inventory control, and records of credits and debits.”

How it Developed

Per Jean Sammet’s book, History of Programming Languages (1981), Mary Hawes definitely made the first request that brought about an initial meeting in April 1959. This first meeting resulted in seeking sponsorship from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). Charles Philips, an employee at the DOD, agreed to the plan to start meetings in the Pentagon. In May 1959, approximately 40 representatives of computer users and computer manufacturers met and formed the Short-Range Committee of the Conference on Data Systems Languages (CODASYL). Further, according to the History of Programming Languages, Mary Hawes allegedly chaired the data descriptions subcommittee in the Short-Range Committee.

How it Became COBOL

During the later part of 1959 (per Proposing COBOL, the National Museum of American History) planning groups met in New York and Boston to prepare specifications for the new programming language they named COBOL. They modeled the new language on earlier computer languages for business: Remington Rand UNIVAC’s FLOW-MATIC, already in use; and IBM’s Commercial Translator, not yet implemented. FLOW-MATIC originated with a group led by Grace Hopper, who advocated for computer programs that could be easily read and understood. Commands in FLOW-MATIC and COBOL were written to resemble ordinary English.

In Sept 1959, Charles Philips gave the following positive comment: “The Department of Defense was pleased to undertake this project; in fact, we were embarrassed that the idea for such a common language had not had its origin by that time in Defense since we would benefit so greatly from the success of such a project” (Sammett, 1981)

In conclusion, Mary K. Hawes can be credited with the origin of COBOL. Not a small accolade, considering the language has persisted for over 60 years and is still widely in use today.


Mary Hawes Co-Authored the Following Books:

  • Optimized code generation from extended-entry decision tables published in September 1971
  • Feature analysis of generalized database management systems: CODASYL Systems Committee published in May 1971
  • A survey of generalized database management systems published in May 1969.



  1. “Burrough’s Future in Electronics”. Retrieved 2016-11-08.
  2. “Proposing COBOL”. National Museum of American History. 2012-04-04. Retrieved 2020-07-25.
  3. Sammet, Jean (1981). History of Programming Languages. Academic Press. pp. 199–243





Celebrating Women in Computing–Past, Present and Future

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The Importance of Women in Computer History

Women have been widely recognized as being important in the history of computer programming. Two examples of women technical pioneers are:

  • Ada Lovelace (1815 to 1852), who was believed to be the first computer programmer.
  • Grace Hopper (1906 to 1992), who was a computer programmer that helped pave the way for the COBOL programming language by developing a compiler, which translated mathematical code into machine-readable code.
Canadian Celebration of Women in Computing

Women continue to celebrate their place in technology. Last year was the fourth annual CAN-CWIC (Canadian Celebration of Women in Computing) conference, which took place in the International Center in Mississauga, Ontario on November 8th and 9th 2019. There were 20+ sessions for 700+ attendees and 40+. Sessions included such topics as social media branding, technologies for people with disabilities, cybersecurity, gaming and others.

Some Stats on Women in Technology

Some promising stats compiled on women in technology for 2018.

  • 29% of all Apple leaders were women.
  • The percentage of Facebook’s women in tech had increased to 22%.
  • Facebook’s female employees reached 36%.
  • Women formed 9% of Google’s employees.
  • 5% of Google’s leaders on a global scale were female.
  • 5% of Google’s newly hired tech-position employees were women.
Canadian Contribution to the Future of Women in Computing

To invest in the future of Women in Technology, the Canadian Government has launched a $2 billion Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES) to double the number of women-owned businesses in Canada by 2025 by increasing access to finance, networks, and advice. As a part of WES, there is a $20 million Women Entrepreneurship Fund which funds women-led companies. Also, involved in the WES initiative is a $200 million Women in Technology (WIT) venture fund that supports women in building their businesses.

Why are Women in Technology Unsung?

What would you consider to be one of the biggest hurdles of being a woman in technology?

Jean E. Sammet–One Woman Programmer’s Lifelong Success Story

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Computer Programming is now considered to be a male-dominated field. However, early in the history of computers, there were several women involved in developing the original languages.

One of these accomplished women was Jean E. Sammet, born March 23, 1928 in New York, New York. According to the history of computers, she was a member of the CODASYL COBOL committee, from 1960 until 1964; chairman of the Short Range Subcommittee, which developed all the statements of COBOL language; originator and developer of FORMAC, one of the earliest formula manipulation languages; leader in language systematization and historian of computer languages.

Jean’s book, Programming Languages: History and Fundamentals (shown below), Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ., 1969, contains a description of the histories of many languages, along with technical information.

Photo of the Author’s personal copy of Jean Sammet’s book

When Jean Sammet passed away on May 20, 2017,  her obituary quoted her as saying in a 2000 interview, “I thought of a computer as some obscene piece of hardware that I wanted nothing to do with.”

However, she also indicated that, in the late 1950’s, jobs as computer programmers were easy to get. In fact, Jean told an interviewer for Glamour Magazine that “At that point — and this is my opinion; I know other people my age don’t agree — there was relatively little discrimination against women, because programmers were very scarce. And so it didn’t matter whether you had three heads.”

Despite the acceptance of women in the programming field at the time, according to the Memorandum written on her death by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), when Jean decided in 1958 to leave her job to work for a company with computers as its focus, she found there were no relevant classified ads for such jobs for women: the classifieds at the time were segmented by gender. She applied to ads for men instead, and she was hired by Sylvania to oversee software development for the U.S. Army’s Mobile Digital Computer (MOBIDIC).

An article of the top 10 women in Tech reported that it was programming calculations onto cardboard punched cards, fed into a computer, that first made Jean love computing. As a result, she joined IBM in 1961, where she worked until she officially retired in 1988. Grace Hopper is often called the “mother of COBOL,” but Jean Sammet was one of the six people who actually designed the language.

The ACM also indicated that, in 1977, she organized the first History of Computing Committee for the American Federation of Information Processing Societies (AFIPS), and served as its chairperson. In addition to encouraging the creation of archives for materials, the committee publicized the importance of industry professionals’ saving materials.

Jean commented on her own experience with saving papers:  “From childhood on, I hated to throw papers away. As I became an adult, this characteristic merged with my interest in computing history. As a result, I created important files and documents of my own, and became concerned with having other people publish material on their important work so the facts (rather that the myths) would be known publicly.”

As a result of her long and successful history as a woman in technology, Jean Sammet serves as an inspiration to the next generation to continue her work in documenting and sharing technical information.

If you’re a member of the IT community, think about how the environment looks today. Do you find discrimination in the IT world? Are there some people who still think of computers as a negative? Can you think of any current famous female role models in technology?