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Mary Allen Wilkes

The Poet of Bits (1937)

In 1945, American engineer Vannevar Bush envisioned computers emerging in a rather intimate fashion: “a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library”. He dubbed the computer a ‘memex’ and he imagined it to have a direct entry in the form of a keyboard. For Vannevar, the notion of intimacy was of special importance. He wished to make “close, personal connections between man and machine”.

The memex, though, would not present itself for forty more years. Remarkably, renowned engineer Ken Olsen would even declare during a 1974 meeting that he “[could not] see any reason that anyone would want a computer of his own”. In retrospect, he could not have not been more wrong. When the memex finally got introduced to the big audience at the start of the 1980s, soon everyone wanted to have one. Not that the device became known as the memex, though. Rather, we know it as the ‘Personal Computer’.

Amidst all of these calendar years, one must not forget the one of 1959. It was in this year that a student by the name of Mary Allen Wilkes visited the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to return with a job as a computer programmer. Fortunately so, for five years later, she would write crucial code for the Laboratory Instrument Computer (LINC), the first ever personal computer. Surely, one can imagine the era that she heralded.

Interestingly, Mary herself did not anticipate a career in programming. Rather, she wished to go into law. Due to the sexism of the time, though, it was likely that taking such a path would promise her ‘a life in front of the typewriter’, rather than becoming an attorney. Therefore, advised by her teachers, she decided to become a programmer. That profession was - for those who noticed - given to her rather nonchalantly. Although she did have experience with symbolic logic due to her background in Philosophy, the nonchalance was primarily due to her gender: the MIT was hastily looking for ‘poets of bits’; precise and picky minds. Women, in that respect, seemed perfect for the job. At the MIT, then, Mary was soon enlisted to the LINC project. Here, she was given the task to write ‘LAP6’, its operating system. In late 1964, she succeeded.

Funnily enough, just before that moment, the LINC had been relocated to St. Louis. As Mary had no desire to relocate herself, she had one shipped to her parents residence in Baltimore, making her the first person on Earth to have a personal computer in her own home. One must remember that, having the size of a refrigerator, this ‘PC’ was not quite as elegant as we know it today. Shortly after this triumphant moment, Mary audaciously attended Harvard Law School where she nonetheless fulfilled her childhood dream: becoming a successful lawyer. Far away from the typewriter, that was.

Mary Allen Wilkes


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