Computer science has grown and evolved immensely over the past century. From mechanical machines capable of processing basic computations to pocket-sized digital computers; and from ideas communicated only through papers and academia to the world wide web and a global community of software engineering working on open source problems, computer science has both an impactful history and an exciting future.
Since the invention of Charles Babbage’s analytical engine in 1837, computers have needed instructions to perform tasks. These instructions are conveyed using coding languages. These coding languages are constantly evolving, beginning almost 150 years ago with Ada Lovelace’s translation algorithm. Early computer programs were written on punch cards: programmers would punch out dots on index cards in specific patterns that represented different instructions. Punch cards were replaced by tapes, which were then replaced by digital input methods.
In 1952, mathematician Dr. Grace Hopper completed A0, a program that allows a computer user to use English-like words instead of numbers to give the computer instructions. Seven years later, Dr. Hopper led a team that developed COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language), which even today remains the backbone behind most business transaction systems, including credit card processing, ATMs, and phone calls.
In 1957, an IBM team led by John Backus developed FORTRAN, a powerful scientific computer language that uses English-like statements. FORTRAN was in popular use for over half a decade. Developed by students at Dartmouth College in 1964, Beginners All Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, or BASIC, was designed to be a simplified computer programming language for people without strong technical or mathematical backgrounds to use. Fun fact: a modified version of BASIC, written by Microsoft’s co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen, was Microsoft’s first product! Today, about a billion personal computers run operating systems created by Microsoft.
C is one of the most widely used programming languages of all time. This general-purpose language was released in 1972, by Dennis Ritchie at the Bell Telephone Laboratories. About a decade later, in 1980, Bjarne Stroustrup modified C to create C++ to make it better suited for system programming. C++ is the language behind a number of popular softwares, like MS Word and Adobe PDF Reader.
Monty Python served as the inspiration for the name, Python: a general-use programming language with a design philosophy that focuses on readability. Python was created by Guido Van Rossum in 1991. Its syntax allows programmers to write algorithms in fewer lines of code than is possible in languages like C++. Readability and simplicity make Python a great first language to learn. Also considered a very powerful language, Python is currently being used by a number of companies, including Google and NASA.
A team of Sun Microsystems software developers, led by James Gosling, created Java in 1995. While the creators initially developed Java to run set top boxes for interactive television, Java now runs on over 1.1 billion PCs worldwide, and many websites can’t run without it. Java is intended to allow application developers to “write once, run anywhere,” so that they can create applications that can be used on a variety of different programs. A very popular programming language for beginners, Java is a great language to use for a variety of applications, from creating websites to controlling robots. Fun fact: the 2004 MARS ROVER used programs written in Java!
Long before the dawn of calculators and inexpensive personal computers, the solving of large mathematical problems had to be broken into simpler parts and computed by hand. In projects where millions of numbers had to be calculated, women played an integral role by working through these difficult math problems. These women were said to be the first “computers”, as they computed math problems. Los Alamos is a famous modern example of these female “computers”, during which scientists’ wives were recruited in early stages to compute long math problems for the Manhattan Project.
The award-winning film, “Hidden Figures”, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, shines a light on the lives and accomplishments of some of these women. The movie focuses on the West Computers: a group of women who worked for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. This agency was later dissolved and replaced by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The West Computers were at the heart of the agency’s advancements. They worked through, by hand, equations that described every function of a plane, often contributing to the evolving designs of various flying machines. One of the West Computers, Christine Darden, worked to advance supersonic flight, while another, Katherine Johnson, calculated the trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo missions. These brilliant mathematicians were the driving forces behind countless technological advancements in the days before computer programs.
While computer science is a relatively new STEM field, it still has a rich and vibrant history and has shaped much of the last century. As new inventions and discoveries continue to push the boundaries of what is possible with computer science, it is always fascinating to look back and learn about the incredible computer scientists that have come before. Their innovations and contributions have set the stage for modern computer science, and by extension, the world of technology as we know it.
Ananya Rao is studying Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA, and she is an instructor at Juni Learning. She is a biorobotics researcher at CMU, and she is pursuing an additional major in Robotics. She was previously a Digital Technology Intern at GE Transportation and an Assistant Teacher at the National Academy For Learning in Bengaluru, India. Ananya also enjoys dancing, building robots, and writing stories.