This is an excellent article about a female mathematician and early computer scientist named Margaret Butler. Margaret started out studying the social sciences, but she found herself drawn to mathematics, where the challenge and resulting thrill of finding a definitively correct answer was too much for her to resist. After completing her Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics and Statistics from Indiana University, Margaret worked as a statistician for the Bureau of Labor Statistics and then for the United States Air Force. In 1948, she began working for Argonne National Laboratory as a “Junior Mathematician”. In that role, she served as a “Computer”, which, in those days, had an organic meaning: a human being who worked out complicated mathematical problems by hand. This work was tedious and time-consuming, and it required long hours of double-checking calculations to make sure they were correct. It was an important role, because the scientists’ work could not proceed without these human computers.
Of course, the era of the human computers would end. After a short time away from Argonne, Margaret returned and began working with a variety of electromechanical computers Argonne had developed. These complicated devices automated what the human computers had done for over a decade. Operating them required a keen understanding of their architecture to program them. So, Margaret became one of the early experts in computer organization and programming, two cornerstones of Computer Science education today. She also became familiar with the first computer operating systems, which, in those days, included humans in the loop to ensure that data was transformed the way it needed to be. She spent the rest of her career at Argonne, during which she saw computers evolve from intricate and massive electromechanical machines to less imposing but tremendously more powerful mainframes.
As I read her story, I grew envious of how she entered on the ground floor of computer science and was able to learn, in a very direct way, the science of computing we now must to learn from books and the Internet. She got her hands dirty with the stuff. She was able to see firsthand how computers transform data and process instructions. And she was able to witness and be a part of the dramatic, fast-paced evolution of these systems. I think I was born about fifty years too late.
However, the end of the article describes the tremendous challenges that faced a woman in computer science and mathematics in those days: the subtle and not-so-subtle acts of discrimination and the policies that were tone-deaf to gender differences. I realized the tremendous sacrifices she made and the strength of character she must have had to carry on. Being on the ground floor of something often comes with its own set of challenges and threats. Margaret faced these and persevered, leaving her mark on computer science in the process.
Thankfully, things such as the Raspberry Pi and Arduino kits are returning the tinkerer’s mentality to Computer Science. I don’t think we’ll ever experience the same level of hands-on, full-body tinkering again in the field, unless we develop a shrink ray that can zap us to the size of a dust mite. But we are, at least, playing again.
Margaret spent her career playing. She played devices that enabled other scientists to do their work, and she did so against the odds. Her story is inspiring, and it is another example of the prominent role women have played in Computer Science.