Celebrating Ada Lovelace Day 2010

My Ada Lovelace Day post is a two-parter: the first part, recognizing two women who inspired me in math and computing; the second, recognizing Milly Koss, an inspirational and accomplished female computer scientist.

Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science. Learn more

Mrs. Smarkola, Miss Herrick, and the Dawn Patrol

Article about The Dawn Patrol From the Grace Park Mini News, an article about Dawn Patrol by yours truly, circa 1985.

I am so fortunate to have been raised in the 80s, during the emergence of the personal computer. My school, Grace Park Elementary, and my teachers were excited about the TRS-80s and Apple IIes in the classroom, and many kids had Commodore 64s at home. Our teachers saw us get excited about learning; we were having fun playing with new toys our parents never had.

Our librarian, Mrs. Smarkola, was one of my most favorite people at school. When I think of her, I always imagine her with a large book in hand, head down, adjusting her glasses, focused on her reading. But I also remember her running the classroom full of typewriters and computers which was across the hall from the library. She’d walk from computer to computer, typing commands, turning them on or off, inserting tapes or disks, making sure each computer had an instruction sheet or book for the next activity. Around the time of fourth grade, a few of those computers moved into the library itself, and the whole school used them to check out and return books — under Mrs. Smarkola’s watchful eye, of course.

My fourth grade teacher, Miss Herrick, was one of those teachers that all of the kids in school were afraid of. Kids talked about her being “hard” and “mean” — but when I got in to her classroom, I was in heaven. You see, Miss Herrick loved math. I loved math. We were a perfect match! She frequently gave us math quizzes with long division problems, which I always aimed to complete first — because the first to finish got to “play” on the computer we had in the classroom. I’d guess that I spent more time on that computer than anyone else, and I think I was also the classroom “computer aide,” to help other students with it. (BTW, to this day, I love doing long division in my head when I’m bored.)

So many of us kids at Grace Park were interested in computers and learning, that our awesome principal, Dr. Joseph Fleischut, authorized a program called “Dawn Patrol” which was run by Mrs. Smarkola and Miss Herrick. For kids who signed up and got to school about 30 minutes before the opening bell, it was a time to use the computers, typewriters, and library. As you may have guessed, I signed up nearly every day. It may have been during Dawn Patrol that I programmed a TRS-80 CoCo 2 to play the harmony to “Yesterday” by The Beatles, so that it could accompany me as I played the melody on the flute. (When I got to perform at the district concert with the computer, it choked under the hot lights of the stage, sadly.) It also may have been there that I first attempted to program a Joshua-like AI from WarGames. I definitely spent time playing the Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego games there, as well as being questioned by Eliza. But what I remember with the greatest certainty (and the utmost thanks!) were the ways in which Mrs. Smarkola and Miss Herrick (and Dr. Fly, too) encouraged me, nurtured my passion for math, computers, reading, and learning, and always praised me for my accomplishments — key factors which recent studies say are crucial to getting more women in to STEM.

Adele Mildred (Milly) Koss

Milly Koss and Me I was introduced to Milly Koss in September 2006 when a historical marker was placed at the site of the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation.

Milly Koss “had a distinguished career of more than 47 years in all phases of computer technology, implementation and management, including applications design and development, software/hardware selection, database technologies and computer security.” Her name is known to some — but not enough, in my opinion.

Milly was raised in Philadelphia and attended the selective Philadelphia High School for Girls. She earned a scholarship to attend the University of Pennsylvania in 1946, at a time when schools were primarily giving spots to veterans. She graduated in 1950 with a degree in mathematics. In the early days of computing, women were seen as ideal computer programmers due to their “patience, persistence, and a capacity for detail.” Of course, in order for a woman to get one of these jobs, she had to have a degree in math and not be married. Milly Koss qualified on the first point, but not on the second: she was engaged. The first company she interviewed with rejected her for this reason.

Fortunately, she was in the right place — Philadelphia was home to the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation and, from the way Milly describes it, I imagine it to be a workplace much like any modern internet company — except that 40% of their programmers were women. Milly interviewed with Dr. John Mauchly, who she described as being very nice, flexible, and open. He gave her a wonderful, exciting, creative job — working with the UNIVAC.

Milly worked with Grace Hopper and was responsible for developing Editing Generator, a problem-oriented language for computer-generated reports, in 1952. Milly was interested in what “computers could do for programmers… how it could help programmers program.” She also worked on sort routines for years, which she calls “the quintessential program for machines.” She reminds us that today we should be grateful for that early work in automated programming, interpreters, assemblers, and compilers.

By the way, much of this she did while working part-time and remotely! According to Milly, when informed about her pregnancy, Grace Hopper told her to “take it home” — meaning, the work. Milly would go in to the office one or two days a week, otherwise working from her dining room table. In an interview with Kathy Kleiman (who is the driving force behind the ENIAC Programmers Project), Milly said:

“What’s funny about that period, I’m not sure who my boss was. This was such an unstructured environment… Once I had a child they let me continue to work the way I wanted to. I inferred from that I was of value to them. Nobody lets you work that way unless they are getting value. I got increases. I got paid fairly well. Eckert & Mauchly was pretty good that way… There were no models, they didn’t care how you worked. There were no preconceived notions as to the way you could contribute. You did not have to be in the office…. We did not have huge management teams. We did incredibly new and exciting things and nobody had a problem.”

Milly later went to work for Burroughs Corporation, Philco, and Control Data Corporation, and Raytheon. At Burroughs and Philco she continued her flexible work schedule and would send her work in by mail! At CDC, she worked with early graphics algorithms and interfaces including light pens. Then Milly moved to Harvard University, where says she finally started feeling the hierarchy and loss of flexibility. She spent 27 years at Harvard, in multiple roles. She applied data management expertise to applications for the school and led an R&D effort to develop one of the first data warehouses, the Information Utility. She served as Associate Director of the Office for Information Technology and as the Information Security Officer for the university.

Milly retired in 1994. In 1997, she received a Pioneer Award at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. In 2000, she received the Ada August Lovelace Award from the Association for Women in Computing. With her many years of contributions to the field, I’m sure she also inspired many people — women and men alike.

Additional Resources

Comments

  1. I love your blog posts, especially the one about your teacher and librarian and the Dawn Patrol. They are inspirational. Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

  2. […] Celebrating Ada Lovelace Day 2010 by Kimberly Blessing, Comcast Interactive Media […]

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