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Women in STEM - Mary Allen Wilkes

In eighth grade, Mary Allen Wilkes had a geography teacher tell her that she ought to be a computer programmer when she grew up. Little did they both know, Mary would not only become a programmer, but she would eventually become known as the very first person to ever use what we now consider a “PC” in her own living room.

woman sitting at the first keyboard working on the first personal computer in the 1960s
Mary Allen Wilkes

After she graduated from college, Mary had initially wanted to be a lawyer but was discouraged from that path due to the field not being very friendly to women at the time. She thought about what her teacher had once told her about being a programmer, so she had her parents drive her to MIT so she could apply for a job. At the time, there was no coding test or experience necessary, only the ability to think logically. Because Mary had studied logic and philosophy in college, she was easily able to pass the test to become a programmer.

After working on large, punch-card programmed computers for IBM, Mary was eventually assigned to work on a new, smaller computer that had its own screen and keyboard. The LINC became her most well-known project. It was the very first “minicomputer” - and the predecessor to what we consider personal computers today.

Here is a photo of Mary with the LINC at her home in 1965. Her father would apparently joke with his coworkers and neighbors that they "can't say that they have a computer in their living room."

Through this work, Mary would go on to co-author the book, “Programming the LINC” with Wesley A. Clark.

The next project Clark worked on after the LINC was to design “macromodules” which were computer building blocks. Mary was the one to develop the multiply macromodule, which was the most complex of the entire set.

Mary has said that programming computers was intellectually stimulating but socially isolating, and she really wanted to fulfill her childhood dream of becoming a litigator. After her amazing work as a programmer and developer of many computer programming manuals, Mary Allen Wilkes attended Harvard Law School and became a lawyer, and spent most of her working years practicing law.

To learn more about Mary Allen Wilkes,

Or check out this interview with her about Programming the LINK on YouTube:

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