2013 NCWIT Summit - Jean Sammet Pioneer Award Reception

August 14, 2013



Allison Collier:  Jean, Aspirations in Computing is a program by NCWIT to encourage young women to pursue computing. A group of us were asked to create your award, so we made a scrapbook honoring you as 2013 NCWIT Pioneer.

Each page is filled with original artwork and musings. Over 40 of us contributed to the scrapbook. Each page is a testament to your legacy and inspiration. From our generation to yours, thank you for all of your contributions to computing.


Jean Sammet:  Thank you very much for all the kind words and for the honor. I must confess that, when I first was told of this, I did not know of NCWIT and thought I better look this up…


Jean:  …And make sure this was a reputable organization.


Jean:  Of course, it is ‑‑ I found that out very quickly. In the short time that I've been here, I'm even more impressed. The work that's being done here is really quite amazing. There are just two very small stories that I want to tell you.

One, when I went to numerous computer conferences in the late '50s and the '60s ‑‑ I don't know what the date was, but there weren't very many women. That's for sure. The first time I realized that there were a significant number of women attending these conferences is when I had to stand in line in the ladies' room for the very first time.


Jean:  The other thing I want to tell you, because I get asked very, very often how did I get started in the computer field, which was in 1955. Some of you may have heard this story. If so, I apologize. For those of you who have not, I simply want to tell you because it was rather strange.

I was working at Sperry Gyroscope, doing mathematical work, because my original education was in mathematics. I wanted to be a math teacher and somehow never got around to being able to do that.

I was doing mathematical analysis at Sperry Gyroscope having to do with torpedoes. It wasn't very interesting, but at least it was something to do for a living. One day, in 1955, my boss' boss came over to me and said, "Do you know that some of our engineers are building a digital computer?"

Up until then, everything that Sperry had done, and Sperry did a lot of work for the federal government, but everything involved an analog computer, which most of you probably have never heard of. But never mind, it existed.

He came over and said, "Our engineers are building this so they can learn something about the digital computer field. Do you want to be our programmer?" I said, "What's a programmer?"


Jean:  His answer, I kid you not, was "I don't know, but I know we need one."


Jean:  That put me into a quandary because I didn't know who to consult. I didn't know anybody in the field. I hadn't really heard of the field. Although ACM existed since 1947, I didn't know anything about it. Didn't know who to consult. Didn't ask anybody ‑‑ I had nobody to ask. I finally decided I would take a chance. I then proceeded to self‑teach myself what I needed to do to do the job.

The one last story I will tell you is that one of the young men that we hired to help with the programming came in. After I trained him, I sent him up to this computer, which was a drum computer using a Teletype input. In those days, computer time was measured in hours.

That is to say you assigned time on a computer, whether it was a UNIVAC or a small computer or some other. It might be an hour. Maybe, if you were lucky, you got two hours of computer time. You and the computer and maybe an operator, especially if it was a UNIVAC.

After about an hour, I had not heard from this man who was upstairs. I had told him to call me if they had any problem. I hadn't heard from him, and I was worried. I thought maybe something had happened to him.

I went upstairs, and I saw him poring over a printed output. Those were the days in which we had printed outputs. He was sitting there with a grin on his face. I said, "John, did your program work?" He said, "No." I said, "Why are you looking so happy?" He looked at me with big round eyes and said, "You mean they're paying me to have all this fun?"


Jean:  That, to me, has always been the best description of programming that I have ever heard. I congratulate the young women who have gotten the previous awards from this organization. I certainly wish every woman who is here, and the men as well, but especially the women, lots of good luck in the computer field.

It's wonderful. Thank you again.



Transcription by CastingWords