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Frances E. Allen

The Would-Be Math Teacher (1932)

When Frances E. Allen sidetracked from her journey to becoming a Mathematics teacher, she probably did not plan to become a true computer revolutionary. And yet, almost 50 years later, she would become the first female recipient of the renowned Turing Award, often considered to be the Nobel Prize of Computing.

To understand how this came about, one must return to the placid town of Peru, New York. After obtaining a Bachelors degree in Mathematics in 1954, it is here where Frances decided to teach math to high school students. Both the place as the profession were not arbitrarily chosen. Peru had been her own birthplace, where she grew up on a dairy farm that knew no electricity, plumbing or even central heating - Frances herself had dubbed it the ‘Depression Farm’. Convinced that education could empower the local children, she believed that she was the designated person to introduce them to the world of algebra and trigonometry. However, after obtaining her Masters degree in Mathematics in 1957, she found herself deeply in debt; looking for a more lucrative job that would pay her loans until she could return to teaching.

This opportunity was provided to her by IBM’s research division, where her first assignment was to teach Fortran to a skeptical staff of programmers. Rather than communicating with the computer in either 0s or 1s - as the ‘hardware kings’ of IBM had done thus far - this recently developed programming language would allow for communication with the computer in a way closer to human understanding. It was made possible by a compiler program, translating instructions written in a ‘human’ language into the digital code of the machine.

When Fortran succeeded in making programs as efficient as equivalent hand-coded programs, Frances was so impressed that she would not leave IBM until her retirement 45 years later; becoming ever more devoted to making compiler technology more efficient. Notably, in the early 1960s, she worked on compiler optimization during a secret project for the U.S. National Security Agency, where a special computer set out to harvest intelligence from intercepted communications from spy listening posts all around the world. Moreover, from 1980 to 1995, Frances headed valuable research that worked on compiler software for parallel machines. With the rise of the microprocessor, namely, IBM was in need to convert its traditional mainframes into parallel computers to ensure its survival. In response, the company made her the first female IBM Fellow.

It is her theoretical and practical contributions to both compiler technology and parallel programming that eventually made Frances the first female recipient of the Turing Award. And, although she has never returned to becoming a math teacher, she has continuously shared her innovations at academic workshops and lectures throughout her impressive career.

Frances E. Allen

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