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

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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.


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