Ten Minutes With Jean Sammet ’48

Programming Pioneer, Jean Sammet

Jean E. Sammet ’48 majored in mathematics at Mount Holyoke and was a pioneer in developing and researching programming languages. She created FORMAC, the first widely used computer language for symbolic manipulation of mathematical formulas. Sammet has won numerous awards, most recently the Pioneer Award from the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

On being one of the very few women in a male-dominated industry:

Sometimes the issue was just ignored—I was just another person. In fact, I had one boss who called a staff meeting and he started out by saying, “Gentlemen, let’s get started.” And he sorted of frowned and said, “No. Gentlemen and lady, let’s get started.” And then he said, “I don’t like that. Jean, from now on, you’re a man. So, gentlemen, let’s get started.” I thought that was funny. It didn’t bother me. I made up my mind early on that I was not going to be bothered by these things.

On quitting her job doing mathematical work involving submarines:

I felt that I was not going to be able to advance because at that time women were not allowed on submarines. Although there was no need in the work I was doing to be on the submarine, somehow the fact that I knew I couldn’t get on it made me decide to take a chance on a programming offer.

On the process of becoming a programmer:

It was very hard. There were no books, no manuals—I had to write the manual for the machine I was working on. Although there were a few professionals in the field at the time, I didn’t know any of them. There wasn’t anybody to talk to so I just taught myself. Sounds strange but it’s true.

On why she enjoys programming:

It’s almost like a jigsaw puzzle. You’re putting together various pieces of code and you have to get everything to fit. When the program works, it’s an enormous sense of satisfaction. It’s a little bit hard to tell you why it’s so fun to do this, all I’m saying is that it is.

On what she thinks will be the technology of the future:

I won’t be alive to see it, but there will be enormous advances in the use of robotics.

Photo by Ben Barnhart

This article appeared in the fall 2013 issue of the Alumnae Quarterly

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One response to “Ten Minutes With Jean Sammet ’48”

  1. Rivy (Mandell) Chapman '51 says:

    As an MHC senior Jean Hammet “hazed” me.
    She kept me busy the entire day copying numerous pages of abstruse mathematics.

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