Feature photo created and edited by the author
Photo of Jean E. Sammet Courtesy of Adobe Stock
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.
Book Photo Courtesy of Amazon
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.
Photo of Punch Cards Courtesy of Adobe Stock
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?