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When Jean E. Sammet Learned to Code, Steve Jobs Was Still in Diapers

Jean Sammet, first female president of ACM.

Jean Sammet was the first female president of ACM,, created the computer language FORMAC, and was a key member of the committee that created COBOL.

Credit: Ben Shneiderman

In 1955, while Jean Sammet was working as a mathematician doing torpedo analysis at the Sperry Corporation in Long Neck, New York, her supervisor asked whether she'd like to become a programmer for a new digital computer. "What's a programmer?" she asked. His reply: "I don't know, but I know we need one."

That inauspicious introduction led to Sammet's decades-long career in programming, during which she became the first female president of the Association for Computing Machinery, created the computer language FORMAC, and was a key member on the committee that created COBOL (which stands for common, business-oriented language and is used today both commercially and to unify communication among our military branches).

I first learned about this pioneer, now 89, while researching a documentary I directed about her contemporary, computer scientist Grace Hopper. Then last year I had the privilege of meeting Sammet at a conference celebrating women in computing—and when I realized I was in the presence of the Jean Sammet, I burst into tears. I felt such a connection to the women I'd researched, but I never thought I'd get a chance to meet one. I was excited to continue our conversation here.

GILLIAN JACOBS: When did you realize that you were interested in math?

JEAN SAMMET: Probably when I was seven years old. When I started the first grade, I immediately decided I liked that number stuff.


From Glamour
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