Jean Sammet, Programming Language Pioneer!

Last Updated: December 5, 2018 4:00 pm
Jean Sammet, Programming Language Pioneer!

Jean Sammet, Programming Language Pioneer!

Jean E. Sammet, who entered the 1950s world of computers from a mathematics background, led the development of FORMAC (FORmula MAnipulation Compiler), the first commonly used programming language for manipulating non-numeric algebraic expressions. With another well-known woman in STEM, Grace Hopper, as the technical consultant for the project, Sammet also helped develop COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language), one of the first programming languages designed for business use. Jean Sammet was the first female president of the Association for Computing Machinery and her book Programming Languages: History and Fundamentals  is considered a classic.

As it is for many women today, Sammet’s path into computer programming was not a direct course; computer science as a discipline was still in its infancy, and wasn’t offered as a degree program until 1953. Today, many women make their way into programming jobs through the help of coding bootcamps and self-learning. Sammet’s story is inspirational for anyone, but especially for people who may take a non-linear path to get into the tech field.

Born in New York in 1928, Sammet demonstrated early on an interest in math: “When I started the first grade, I immediately decided I liked that number stuff.” She studied math all throughout school and eventually received a master’s degree in math from the University of Illinois in 1949.  Sammet worked as a mathematician at Sperry Gyroscope, a major U.S. company involved in making aviation electronics, from 1953 to 1958, performing mathematical work on submarines and torpedoes for the U.S. Navy.

In her own words, spoken when she received the 2009 IEEE Computer Pioneer Award, this is how, in 1955, Sammet became a programmer for Sperry Gyroscope:

“My boss came over to me one day and said, ‘Do you know that we have a couple of engineers who are building a digital computer?’ And my answer was ‘Yes.’ I didn’t quite know what it meant, but, yes. And he said, ‘Would you like to be our programmer?’ And I said, ‘What’s a programmer?’ And his answer–and I kid you not–his answer was, ‘I don’t know, but I know we need one.’…I said ‘Yes’ to him, and that was the start of what is obviously a very long and has been a very rewarding career.”

Jean Sammet enters the annals of computer history in 1959, when she was part of the small sub-committee–there were only six people–who analyzed existing programming languages and created specifications for a new language that would move computer usage beyond the expert hands of mathematicians, scientists, and engineers, and into the lives of more people across industries. The result was COBOL, or Common Business Oriented Language, a language that could help companies manage business data like accounting and payroll. Today, COBOL is still used on mainframe computers; many bank transactions take place through programs written in COBOL. In 1961 Sammet joined IBM, where she spent almost thirty years of her career, and developed FORMAC (a cousin to FORTRAN) while there in 1962. And in 1974, she was elected the first female president of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).

But maybe, for those girls and women today who are thinking about getting more involved in STEM fields, Jean Sammet’s legacy isn’t just her list of accomplishments. It’s her attitude toward being a woman in STEM. In an interview, Sammet was asked what it was like being one of the first women in computer programming. Here’s what she said about her experience:

“Sometimes the issue was just ignored. I was just another person. In fact I had one boss who, early when he got put into that position, called a staff meeting. There were five people working for him. Four men and myself. And he started out the meeting saying, ‘Gentlemen, let’s get started.’ And then he sort of frowned and he said, ‘No, gentlemen and lady, let’s get started.’ And he said, ‘I don’t like that. Jean, from now on, you’re a man, you’re a gentleman. So, gentlemen, let’s get started.’ I thought that was fine. I just thought that was funny; it didn’t bother me. I made up my mind very early on that I wasn’t going to think it [presumably, in the context of the interview, discrimination] was happening unless I had clear evidence. And I never really had clear evidence.”

This anecdote suggests that in Sammet’s workspaces, it didn’t much matter if someone was a man or a woman; what mattered were their skills. According to another woman who worked at IBM, Lois Haibt, “They took anyone who seemed to have an aptitude for problem-solving skills — bridge players, chess players, even women.”

Today, we hear a lot about discrimination against women in the tech industry. Yet the recollections of Sammet suggest a different story. Has the culture around women in STEM changed, or is our current perspective–that women are usually at a disadvantage in the tech industry–not entirely accurate? Whatever the truth is, Sammet’s experiences give us insight into the history of computing, and her life is an inspiring example of someone who has made important contributions to the field.

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