The origin stories of popular programming languages are practically lore in the tech world. You can probably recognize the names of notable programming language inventors throughout history, like Guido van Rossum who created Python, Ruby’s chief designer Matz, or Bjarne Stroustrup, the brain behind C++. But you may not realize that a handful of programming languages were created by women programmers.
In the early days of modern computing, women dominated the programming field. Computer programming — which involved a lot of math, planning, and attention to detail — was viewed as secretarial work, and therefore believed to be better suited for women. Over time, tech became a male-dominated field, and nowadays, women only make up about 28% of the tech workforce.
To celebrate Women’s History Month, we’re taking a look back on the lesser-known (but equally impressive) programming languages that were created by women, and exploring how the contributions of these women impacted the languages and technologies we know and use today. Whether you’re looking for a programming language to learn next, or you want to pay tribute to women in tech who’ve paved the way, here are the languages you should know about.
ARC assembly language
In the late ‘40s, British mathematician and programmer Kathleen Booth wrote the first assembly language for a computing system she helped build called ARC (Automatic Relay Calculator). An assembly language is a low-level programming language used to directly correspond with machine code. (BTW, you can learn all about assembly languages and the role they play in computer architecture in our course Computer Architecture: Assembly Language.)
Kathleen was ahead of her time; she started researching neural networks and natural language processing in the ‘50s, and she wrote textbooks about programming. We love what she wrote about programming in a 1958 book: “The technique for programming can be acquired by anyone with a capacity for accurate detailed thinking, and a talent for solving puzzles.”,” she wrote in the instructional book Programming for an Automatic Digital Calculator.
Grace Hopper was an iconic American computer scientist and United States Navy Admiral who developed FLOW-MATIC, which was one of the first data-processing languages. FLOW-MATIC ran on the UNIVAC, one of the OG general-purpose commercial computers.
FLOW-MATIC was considered revolutionary in 1955, because it used English-like statements to solve data problems. This was an intentional part of the design, because Grace wanted to make working with computers accessible to the average person. “What I was after in beginning English language [programming] was to bring another whole group of people able to use the computer easily,” she said in a 1980 interview. “I kept calling for more user-friendly languages. Most of the stuff we get from academicians, computer science people, is in no way adapted to people.”
Even professional programmers benefited from its natural language-based syntax. A 1957 promotional brochure for FLOW-MATIC highlights the language’s simplicity and efficiency, reading: “Your skilled programmers are freed from clerical drudgery to do more creative work.”
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COBOL is short for “Common Business Oriented Language,” because it was a high-level programming language that was meant to be used as a business tool. COBOL had an easy-to-read syntax so that non-programmers could figure out how to use it, and it was largely based on FLOW-MATIC.
COBOL was designed in 1959 by a committee of software developers that included a few women: Jean E. Sammet, Mary Hawes, Betty Holberton, and Nora Taylor. Grace Hopper advised the committee that created COBOL, but she’s often miscredited for creating the language. “I yield to no one in my admiration for Grace,” Jean, a software engineer on the COBOL committee, said. “But she was not the mother, creator or developer of COBOL.”
COBOL is still used today, particularly by banking institutions and federal agencies. In fact, at the start of the Covid pandemic, there was a demand for developers who understood COBOL and could work on the legacy databases that the government uses to manage unemployment benefits.
Sister Mary Kenneth Keller was a nun and the first American woman to receive a PhD in computer science. Sr. Mary got her start studying computers in 1958 at the National Science Foundation at Dartmouth College, which was an all-male school at the time. There, she worked on the team of computer scientists that developed BASIC, short for Beginners’ All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code.
BASIC was designed to be “precise, simple, and easy to understand,” so that students at Dartmouth could learn how to use computers, according to a 1963 BASIC manual. When home computers became ubiquitous in the ‘70s and ‘80s, BASIC was the go-to language among computer enthusiasts and professional software developers. In 1975, a computer hobbyist named Bill Gates wrote a version of BASIC that would eventually lead to the founding of Microsoft.
Barbara Liskov led the team of students at MIT that designed the programming language CLU in 1973. At the time, “there were 10 women on the faculty out of a faculty of a thousand,” Barbara said in a 2022 interview with the IEEE Computer Society.
CLU, which is short for “cluster,” was the first language to introduce object-oriented programming, a software development paradigm that involves creating programs around named classes and objects. CLU inspired many of the languages that are widely used today, including Python, Ruby, C++, and Lua.
Want to learn how object-oriented programming works in a hands-on way? We cover this paradigm in lots of courses, including Learn Java: Object-Oriented Programming, Learn Intermediate Python 3: Object-Oriented Programming, and Learn C#.
In 1966, way before there were toys and apps that introduced young kids coding concepts, MIT computer scientist Cynthia Solomon started creating “a place where kids could play with words and sentences — explore mathematics, write stories, [and] make games,” she wrote. This would eventually become Logo, a programming language and learning environment for coding that’s tailored to kids.
The first version of Logo was a robotic turtle that kids could move by typing commands into a computer; eventually the turtle became a graphic object on a screen. Logo’s simple, English-like commands direct the turtle to move across the screen and draw shapes, teaching coding concepts along the way.
Check out this very old school Logo demo to see it in action:
Logo was a popular product for kids in the ‘80s who wanted to explore computing. You can see Logo’s impact on educational technology that we use today, like the coding community Scratch or the visual programming editor Blockly. In our course Learn to Code with Blockly, you can learn the basics of programming using drag and drop commands.
Feeling inspired to learn a new programming language or stretch your coding knowledge? Start by taking our course Choosing a Programming Language to learn about the differences and similarities across popular programming languages, then explore the rest of the courses and paths in our catalog.