Remembering a hidden figure: Computing pioneer Jean Sammet
Jean Sammet passed away in May, at the age of 89. Image: IBM Archives

Remembering a hidden figure: Computing pioneer Jean Sammet

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After a lengthy and immensely influential career in computer programming, Jean Sammet recently passed away at the age of 89.

IBM has proved itself as a giant of computing for decades now, with a significant number of people responsible for setting the company on its path to what it has become today.

Perhaps one of the most influential of all is someone many may never have heard of: author, programmer and computing pioneer Jean Sammet.

Sammet passed away in May, with those in computing who knew her left mourning, and those in computing who didn’t realising just how big a deal she was.

Lauded with awards, authoring classic books on programming, leading international organisations, and pioneering language development that changed the world, Sammet was as influential as they get.

The work she has left behind continues to dictate today’s digital age.

Numbers from the get-go

A child of two New York lawyers, Sammet became interested in maths “probably when I was seven years old”, she once said.

“When I started the first grade, I immediately decided I liked that number stuff.”

Graduating through the various elements of the US education system of the time, Sammet earned a doctorate in maths, eventually joining a company called Sperry Gyroscope in the 1950s.

Sammet first encountered a computer a few years before, while studying at the University of Illinois in 1949. Unimpressed by what was a confusing machine, she said she “wanted nothing to do with” it at first.

At Sperry Gyroscope, she worked on the likes of submarine programmes for the US navy, before greater access to computers emerged in the late 1950s.

For a bit of in-house training, she looked at programming calculations onto cardboard punched cards, which were then fed into a computer and, to her “utter astonishment”, she loved it.

Jean Sammet clippings: IBM Archive

Jean Sammet press clippings from the 1970s. Image: IBM Archive

COBOL and FORMAC

Sammet’s expertise and enthusiasm led to her role in helping to develop COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language), a programming language integral to data processing, before joining IBM in 1961.

It was here that her career really took off, initiating and managing the creation of FORMAC (Formula Manipulation Compiler), an early computing algebra system widely regarded as a breakthrough.

This allowed scientists, researchers and engineers to harness computers to complete routine, symbolic mathematical equations – automation that, today, we take for granted.

COBOL, initially a quick fix, has lasted the test of time, with billions of lines added or changed each year.

Sammet saw the suitability for COBOL across multiple disciplines, advocating greater engineering in the language so it could be used in banking and healthcare, too.

She authored a book called Programming Languages: History and Fundamentals, a well-received publication at the time.

Accolades

From here, Sammet’s profile in computing skyrocketed, with awards and senior postings soon following.

A member of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Council, Sammet rose to the top of the group, eventually serving as president.

She was inducted as an honorary member of Upsilon Pi Epsilon, and won the 1985 Distinguished Service Award from ACM, “for dedicated, tireless, and dynamic leadership in service to ACM and the computing community; for advancing the art and science of computer programming languages and recording its history”.

Retiring from IBM in 1988, she soon received the Ada Lovelace Award from the Association for Women in Computing, all before the Berlin Wall had fallen.

Sammet wrote a retrospective on FORMAC for the History of Programming Languages conference in 1993.

Named a fellow of the Computer History Museum in the US in 2001, she then landed key pioneer accolades in the coming decade or so.

In her later years, for example, the IEEE Computer Society presented her with a prestigious Computer Pioneer award for her work in the formative years of programming languages.

Grady Booch, chief scientist for software engineering at IBM Research, said in The New York Times that “Jean Sammet was a strong, consistent voice of integrity”.

Gordon Hunt
By Gordon Hunt

Gordon joined Silicon Republic in October 2014 as a journalist. Unafraid of heights or spiders, Gordon spends most of his time avoiding conversations about music, appreciating even the least creative pun and rueing the day he panicked when meeting Paul McGrath. His favourite thing on the internet remains the ‘Random Article’ link on Wikipedia.

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