Frances Allen, Who Pioneered Faster Software for Computers, Dies at 88

Photo: IBM
Photo: IBM

You may not know who Frances Allen is off the top of your head, but you should. Not only was she the first female IBM fellow, but she was also the first woman winner of the prestigious Turing Award. If that wasn’t impressive enough, Allen also pioneered computer compiling — the process by which the gadgets we use convert software from the high-level coding languages understood by humans, to source code executable by machines.

Allen died on August 4, her 88th birthday, at a nursing home in Schenectady, New York, from Alzheimer’s disease.

Despite all her groundbreaking achievements, Allen initially didn’t intend on a career in computer science. After earning a master’s degree from the University of Michigan for mathematics in 1957, Allen took a job with IBM to pay off her student loans. She taught new IBM employees Fortran, a new type of high-level programming language that enabled engineers to code in something easier to understand than binary. While Allen had only intended to stay at IBM until her debt was squared, she ended up spending the next 45 years there, retiring in 2002.

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Early on, Allen was assigned to work as an IBM liaison for the National Security Agency and worked to develop Alpha, which IBM describes as “a very-high-level code-breaking language which featured the ability to create new alphabets beyond the system defined alphabets.” She managed the compiler-optimisation team for both the Harvest and Stretch projects, which resulted in the Stretch-Harvest computer. According to the New York Times, it was the most advanced computer of that time and was made with the intent of intercepting communications from spies all over the world.

At that time, compilers weren’t exactly efficient. That meant software could be slow, clunky, more expensive, and prone to errors. Allen and fellow IBM researcher John Cocke published a series of papers describing how humans could more efficiently communicate with computers, including the seminal 1972 paper “A Catalogue of Optimising Transformations.”

This might sound far-removed from what modern computing is like, but in reality, Allen’s work shaped how we interact with every single piece of tech in our lives. Her work can be found in “every app, every website, every video game or communication system, every government or bank computer, every onboard computer in a car or aircraft,” Graydon Hoare, creator of the Rust programming language, said in Allen’s New York Times obituary. Basically, you can thank Allen for creating the foundation that allows current day developers to write up an app or website that your smartphone, tablet, or computer can almost instantly understand and execute.

On top of her achievements, Allen also played a major role in getting more women to enter computer science. IBM notes that she spent “many years as a mentor through IBM’s mentor program,” and also received several awards for helping women in the field. On top of being inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame, she’s also received the Augusta Ada Lovelace Award.