Female Role Models: Ida Rhodes, the woman who defined the notion of “software”
Ida Rhodes was a pioneer in computing and was a member of the clique of the most influential women at the heart of computer development (along with Gertrude Blanche and Grace Hopper). Here is her inspiring story:
To put things into context:
Imagine Ukraine at the beginning of the 20th century: the country is currently divided between the Russian Empire and Austro-Hungarian monarchy. It yet to become independent and is undergoing an industrial revolution and modernisation.
Ida Rhodes (originally Hadassah Itzkowitz, she changed her name when she moved to the US) was born in 1900 in a Jewish village, around 150 miles southwest of Kiev, Ukraine. Despite the fact that there were ongoing violent campaigns targeting Jews, the girl managed to have a happy childhood, as she was friends with an influential Russian countess. The countess owned around 99 communities in the area and had a passion for nature. She even wanted to adopt the girl, but, according to a source, Ida later recalled telling her: “that was impossible, that I already had a family”. In any case, the countess would invite Ida to her house as a guest, took the girl riding and taught her about the natural world.
In 1913, just before the Bolshevik Revolution, Ida’s parents took her to the United States. Only a few years later, Ida attended Cornell University to get a BA and then an MA in Mathematics. She also studied at Columbia University later on (1930-1931).
During her years at Cornell, she was noticed by many professors for her talents. In fact, professors would change the schedule of their classes, just so that Ida could attend them. However, it wasn’t an easy task since the woman was working as a nurse’s aide in the delivery room at the Ithaca City Hospital. She worked 12 hours a day, starting from 1 pm, so she couldn’t attend any afternoon classes or labs. Funnily enough, it is also the reason why she ended up studying mathematics – because all of the other classes required afternoon commitments!
Meeting Einstein and becoming part of the mathematical community:
Rhodes met Einstein for the first time in 1922, but at the time she was too stunned by him and was too shy to say a word. In 1936 she joined a group of mathematicians who attended informal seminars by Einstein and he recognised Ida:
“It must have been in 1922 that we first met at Cornell. Have you learned to talk since then?”
Einstein to Ida
In fact, she has learned to talk and she became an active member of the mathematical community of the time.
A brilliant career in technology:
Rhodes has held a lot of different positions that involved calculations of some sort, but her career in computing only properly started in 1940, when she joined the Mathematical Tables Project in New York, sponsored by the National Bureau of Standards (NBS). During her time with NBS, she worked with other female pioneers in Computer Science, such as Grace Hopper and Gertrude Blanch, whom she referred to as her mentor.
Ida’s first encounter with a computer was in 1947 when her boss at NBS in New York told her to go to NBS in Washington and learn about electronic computers. She returned shortly because she felt inadequate for the job and was pretty mad at her boss for humiliating her. However, as it turns out, the Washington office loved her and invited Rhodes back immediately to work on the project.
Ida worked on the analysis of the systems of programming and was a pioneer in the field. She and Betty Holberton designed computer language C-10 for the UNIVAC I in the early 1950s. She also programmed the very first software used for the Social Security Administration and was a pioneer in using computers to translate languages. She was one of the first to recognise that it is easier to translate words when you separate their roots from suffixes and prefixes and used it to translate her native language, Russian (also my first language 🙂 ), into English.
Ida officially retired in 1964, but she continued working as a consultant for the NBS for another 7 years, until 1971.
Lectures and contributions
Ida Rhodes was eager to share her knowledge and expertise. During her time at NBS and even after her retirement, she travelled around and taught coding techniques and gave lectures on the benefits of computers. She made sure that anyone could access the material and arranged specialised lectures for the handicapped.
Ida was very generous with the Hebrew community, she donated to charities and made symbolic gestures (like planting trees) to celebrate it. Her fascination with the Hebrew calendar resulted in one of the oldest algorithms still used nowadays and cited to the original author, which still calculates when Jewish Holidays are in calendar programs.
According to a resource, Rhodes was awarded an Exceptional Service Gold Medal by the Department of Commerce in 1949, for: “significant pioneering leadership and outstanding contributions to the scientific progress of the nation in the functional design and application of electronic digital computing equipment.”
In 1976, on Univac’s 25th anniversary, she was awarded a Certificate of Appreciation and in 1981, at the National Computer Conference in Chicago, she was referred to as a Univac pioneer.
Ida died in 1986 in Washington DC. Her sense of humour and self-irony didn’t leave her even in a nursing home when she couldn’t read anymore as she had no energy to do so. She used to comfort herself saying that dimming her eyes had its upsides – it hid her wrinkles.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the story of this incredible and inspiring woman!