Not many people know about Grace Hopper who died in 1992. She completed her Ph.D. in mathematics at Yale in 1934 and taught mathematics at Vassar for the next ten years. During the Second World War she joined the naval reserve and retired in 1986 as a Rear Admiral.
She was also a renowned computer programming pioneer. Among her achievements are her involvement in designing the common business orientated language (COBOL) for the first commercial computer, and her role in standardising the computer languages used by the navy.
She was a clever and remarkable woman, but what merits her inclusion of a blog about writers, writing and language, is her coining of a new meaning for the word bug. The average author may not know much about computer languages and programming but, unless they are sticking firmly to pen and paper, few will have completed a manuscript without the occasional bug freezing their computer. Although the first computer bug was, in fact, a moth.
Here is how Grace Hopper tells the story:
“Things were going badly. There was something wrong in one of the circuits. Finally someone located the trouble spot and, using ordinary tweezers, removed the problem, a two-inch moth. From then on, when anything went wrong with a computer, we said it had bugs in it.”
Whilst we are talking about female mathematicians, another little known fact is that a magazine for ladies know initially as the Ladies’ Diary and then the Woman’s Almanac was a mathematical publication. It started out, as you might expect with titles like that, with recipes and articles on health and beauty. Within a few years however these had been supplemented by mathematical puzzles and questions about arithmetic, geometry, algebra and astronomy that would be answered by the readership. Increasingly, this readership included well known (male) mathematicians. But mostly it was the women readers who supplied solutions, often under pseudonyms.
The magazine flourished – it was published for nearly one hundred and fifty years (1704 – 1841) and suggests that the stereotype of women who can’t do maths, was less dominant in the eighteenth century, than in our own time. The original editor believed in cultivating the female mind as well as offering tips for improving her attractiveness to potential husbands. “Wit join’d to Beauty … leads more Captive than the Conqu’ring Sword.”
Links to my books