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On February 18, 2021, I was attending a video conference, with my laptop perched on my standing desk while I was furtively stealing a glance at the TV in my study. I was excitedly keeping up with the Perseverance Rover that was about to land at the Mars. I was mesmerized by space odyssey and was nervous about the ‘seven minutes of terror’ – when the engineers overseeing the landing would not be able to guide or direct the Perseverance landing as it would take a while to establish or send any communication from Earth to Mars. Hence, the rover would have to perform a landing by itself, with no human guidance involved.
During this time, I thought I saw a masked lady with a ‘bindi’ on her forehead at the NASA control room who was, in her well-modulated American accented voice, giving us a live update of the Rover.
And since that day, Swati Mohan has been all over the news. We have got to know that Mohan was born in Bengaluru, Karnataka, India, and emigrated to the United States when she was one year old. She became interested in space upon seeing Star Trek at age 9. She studied Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University, and did her master’s degree and Ph.D. in Aeronautics and Astronautics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Swati Mohan is the lead for the Navigation and Controls (GN&C) Operations for the Mars project. She led the attitude control system of Mars 2020 during operations and was the lead systems engineer throughout development. She played a pivotal part in the landing which was rather tricky.
This led me to ruminate about women and how they have challenged stereotypes and status quo to blaze the trail, especially in STEM.
I have been fascinated from the time I got to know that the first programmer in the world was a woman, and daughter of the famed poet, Lord Byron, no less. The first Programmer in the World, Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace nee Byron; was born in 1815 and was the only legitimate child of the poet laureate, Lord Byron, and his wife Annabella.
As a teenager, Ada’s prodigious mathematical talents, led her to have British mathematician Charles Babbage, as her mentor. Babbage is known as ‘the father of computers’. Ada translated an article on the Analytical Engine, which she supplemented with an elaborate set of notes, simply called Notes. These notes contain what many consider to be the first computer program—that is, an algorithm designed to be carried out by a machine. As a result, she is often regarded as the first computer programmer.
Six women—Francis “Betty” Snyder Holberton, Betty “Jean” Jennings Bartik, Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum, and Frances Bilas Spence were associated with the programming of the first computer ENIAC. They had no documentation and no schematics to work with. There was no language, no operating system, the women had to figure out what the computer was, and then break down a complicated mathematical problem into very small steps that the ENIAC could then perform. They physically hand-wired the machine, using switches, cables, and digit trays to route data and program pulses. This might have been a very complicated and arduous task. So, these six women were the programmers for the world’s mainframe computers.
The story goes that on February 14, 1946 The ENIAC was announced as a modern marvel in the US. There was praise and publicity for the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, the inventors of ENIAC the first computer, Eckert and Mauchly were heralded as geniuses. However, none of the key programmers, all the women were not introduced in the event. Some of the women appeared in photographs later, but everyone assumed they were just models, perfunctorily placed to embellish the photograph.
One of the six programmers, Betty Holberton went on to invent the first sort routine and help design the first commercial computers, the UNIVAC and the BINAC, alongside Jean Jennings. These were the first commercial mainframe computers in the world.
It behooves us to walk down the pages of history and read about women who had during their time decided to #choosetochallenge and celebrate the likes of Swati Mohan who have grown tall on the shoulders of the first women programmers.