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Event Tuesday to honor first computer programmer

Thirty years ago, there were lots of women working in the computer profession and going to college in programming. No one knows why, but in recent years, that number has dropped by two-thirds and, in response, people hoping to rekindle female participation have started celebrating International Ada Lovelace Day, in honor of the first person — a female — ever to write a computer program.

Lovelace, the daughter of English poet Lord Byron, wrote the first computer algorithm in 1843, for Charles Babbage’s “Analytical Engine,” a pioneering mechanical computer, which flopped when the government couldn't understand it and wouldn't fund it.

Obviously, women belong in the computer world and we need to get more females motivated about science at an early age, says Victoria Law of Ashland, a computer programmer who worked for Boeing in Seattle and ran the Ashland Railroad Historic Railroad Museum.

To this end, Southern Oregon University will host the first local Ada Lovelace Day observance at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 14, in the Meese Room of Hannon Library. It features a presentation on the life of Lovelace by Law, then a panel discussion on increasing diversity in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The panel will explore the importance of including more people of all genders, races and ages in scientific innovation here. It will be led by educator-author Priscilla Oppenheimer of Ashland, formerly of Apple Computer in Silicon Valley. It includes SOU biologist Carol Ferguson, SOU chemistry professor Hala G. Schepmann, Sustainable Valley Technology Group Executive Director Heather Stafford and Oregon Shakespeare Festival IT Manager Andrew Krug.

When Law entered the computer field in 1984, over 37 percent of Computer Science undergraduates were women, she says.

“Today, when computers are an increasing part of our lives, it is surprising ... alarming to find only 12.9 percent are.”

Out of this trend, she says, leaders in science and technology fields, in 2009, started the first Ada Lovelace Day.

The Babbage computer is finally being built and will be the size of a locomotive with a “tiny” one kilobyte capacity.

Because of lack of financial support, Law is closing the Ashland Historic Railroad Museum on A Street this month. She put $100,000 of her own money into it over the last seven years, but notes that history can’t be a priority in an economy when people are fighting to keep libraries open. She plans to continue to be a historian and write a book, likely on Lovelace.

For information on the Ada Lovelace event, call 541-552-6141 or email victoriangeek2014@gmail.com. The event will have refreshments. It is free and open to the public.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.