9 programming languages and the women who created them

From the dawn of mainframes through today, women have designed and developed programming languages that have had significant, lasting impact on software development

Picture of a sign that says Women Who Code

Software development has a well-known reputation for being a male-dominated world. But, despite this, women have made many important and lasting contributions to programming throughout the decades. One area, in particular, where many women have left a mark is in the development of programming languages. Numerous pioneering women have designed and developed the languages programmers use to give computers instructions, starting in the days of mainframes and machine code, through assemblers and into higher level modern day languages. Use the arrows above to read the stories behind 9 programming languages that have had a significant impact over the years and the women who created them.

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Picture of Kathleen Booth

ARC assembly

Creator: Kathleen Booth

Year: 1950

Backstory: In early days of computer programming, programs had to be written directly in machine code, a series of 0s and 1s that the computer would interpret and act upon. Assembly language was developed to make computer programming easier and more reliable by letting programmers write machine instructions in mnemonic form that an assembler would translate into machine code. One of the very first assembly languages was created by by Kathleen Booth who was working at Birkbeck College in the U.K. The language was written for the ARC (Automatic Relay Calculator) computer, which Booth also helped to design and build.

Picture of Kateryna Yushchenko

Address

Creator: Kateryna Yushchenko

Year: 1955

Backstory: The first programmable computer in Europe, known as MESM, was created by the Soviet Union in 1950. One of the scientists tasked with operating it at the Kiev Institute of Mathematics of the Ukrainian SSR Academy of Sciences was Kateryna Yushchenko, the first woman in that country to be awarded Doctor of Physical and Mathematical Sciences in programming. Due to the difficulties programming MESM using machine code, Yushchenko and others saw the need for a higher level programming language to make the task simpler. In 1955 Yushchenko created the Address programming language, which was the first to support indirect addressing and predated many well-known higher level languages developed in the west, such as COBOL. The Address language was widely used in the Soviet Union for more than 20 years.

Picture of Admiral Grace Murray Hopper speaking at a podium

COBOL

Creators: Grace Hopper, along with other members of the Conference on Data Systems Languages Records

Year: 1959

Backstory: COBOL, the Common Business-Oriented Language, was born out of a need by both the U.S. government and businesses for a data processing programming language that could run on different computers, and by non-technical people. One of the key technical advisors to the committee tasked with the creation of this new language was the U.S. Navy’s Grace Hopper. Earlier in the decade Hopper, while working on the UNIVAC system, had created the first compiler, known as A-0, and a number of other early high-level programming languages, such as ARITH-MATIC and B-0, also known as FLOW-MATIC. FLOW-MATIC, created in 1955, was a language for business applications that used English keywords. COBOL was ultimately based heavily on FLOW-MATIC when it was designed in 1959 and first released the following year, which is why Hopper is considered the mother of COBOL.

Picture of Jean Sammet

FORMAC

Creator: Jean Sammet

Year: 1962

Backstory: FORTRAN was developed by IBM in the 1950s mainly for mathematical computation and scientific computing. In 1961, IBM hired mathematician Jean Sammet who had previously worked in scientific programming at Sperry Gyroscope and Sylvania and was, along with Grace Hopper, part of the group that developed COBOL. At IBM in 1962, Sammet developed the programming language FORMAC (FORmula MAnipulation Compiler), an extension of FORTRAN that was able to perform algebraic manipulations. FORMAC became the first widely used language for doing symbolic mathematical computations.

Picture of Cynthia Solomon

Logo

Creators: Cynthia Solomon, along with Daniel G. Bobrow, Wally Feurzeig, and Seymour Papert 

Year: 1967

Backstory: In the late 1960s, a group of researchers at Bolt, Beranek and Newman in Cambridge, Massachusetts saw the need for a programming language for kids based on words and sentences rather than number and symbols, as many programming languages to date relied on. One of those of researchers was Cynthia Solomon, who had gotten her start in computer science by teaching herself Lisp while working for artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky at M.I.T. Solomon helped to develop this new language, named Logo, and guided its refinement by teaching it to 7th graders in the late 1960s. One of Logo’s most well-known applications was for Turtle robots, which could be commanded by users to draw geometric shapes using a pen. Solomon eventually joined M.I.T.’s Artificial Intelligence Lab and later oversaw the creation of Apple’s Logo implementation. Logo has influenced many later educational programming languages, such as Smalltalk and Scratch.

Picture of Barbara Liskov

CLU

Creator: Barbara Liskov

Year: 1974

Backstory: An important evolutionary step in the development of object-oriented programming languages was the creation of CLU in the mid-1970s. CLU’s design and development was led by Barbara Liskov at M.I.T., the first woman in the United States to be awarded a PhD in computer science. Through CLU Liskov introduced (or popularized) concepts such as abstract data types, iterators, and parallel assignment. CLU itself was not an object-oriented language as it lacked some key OO features such as inheritance. CLU was never widely used, but it was hugely influential with many subsequent well-known languages, such as such as Java, Python, and C++ adopting one or more of its pioneering concepts.

Picture of Adele Goldberg

Smalltalk

Creators: Adele Goldberg, along with Alan Kay, Dan Ingalls, Ted Kaehler, Diana Merry, Scott Wallace, Peter Deutsch, and others at Xerox PARC

Year: 1980

Backstory: Much as COBOL was developed 20 years earlier to make programming easier for the everyday person, one of the main ideas behind Smalltalk was to create a language that would allow anyone, not just computer scientists, to create applications. Smalltalk was developed at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) under the guidance of Alan Kay, who was inspired by Simula, the world’s first object-oriented program. In 1973, Adele Goldberg joined Kay’s team at PARC and played a significant role in the development of Smalltalk and its pioneering concepts, such as a the model-view-controller (a key concept behind graphical user interfaces), a WYSIWYG editor, and an integrated development environment. In 1979 Goldberg gave Steve Jobs and his programmers a demo of Smalltalk and its GUI on a PARC Alto computer, which subsequently influenced the design of Apple’s Macintosh desktop. Smalltalk was first released outside of PARC in 1980 as Smalltalk-80 and has had a huge influence on many later languages including as Java, Objective-C, and Python.

A picture of Sophie Wilson

BBC BASIC

Creator: Sophie Wilson

Year: 1981

Backstory: BBC BASIC is perhaps the only programming language that was ever created specifically for a television program. In 1981, the BBC wanted to air a program called The Computer Literacy Project to teach people about programming. However, its technical advisors felt that existing versions of BASIC weren’t good enough for their purposes. Instead, the company turned to company named Acorn Computers to build a new computer, called the BBC Micro, and a new version of BASIC for the show. Sophie Wilson was a computer scientist who, as an undergraduate, had developed Acorn’s first computer, the 8-bit Acorn Microcomputer. Wilson wrote a new version of BASIC for the BBC Micro in under 16KB, that included features like named procedures and functions and IF-THEN-ELSE structures. The Computer Literacy Project was a big hit with viewers, as were the BBC Micro and Wilson’s BBC BASIC, which introduced many people in the U.K. to the world of computers and programming and has since been ported to many different platforms.

Picture of Christine Paulin-Mohring

Coq

Creator: Christine Paulin-Mohring, along with Thierry Coquand, Gérard Huet, Bruno Barras, Jean-Christophe Filliâtre, Hugo Herbelin, Chet Murthy, Yves Bertot, and Pierre Castéran

Year: 1991

Backstory: In 1984, French computer scientists Gérard Huet and Thierry Coquand began development of an interactive system for specifying formal proofs of mathematical theorems. An initial version was created as an implementation of Coquand’s Calculus of Constructions and named CoC. In 1991 Christine Paulin-Mohrin created a new implementation based on the Calculus of Inductive Constructions and the language was renamed to Coq, in honor of Coquand. In addition to mathematical theorems, the Coq Proof Assistant System, as it known, is also used for software certification. Paulin-Mohring has been recognized by the programming community for being one of the primary developers of this important language and tool.