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Jean Sammet: Programming Language Contributor and Historian, and ACM President
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Jean E. Sammet, when she was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering.

Jean E. Sammet1 was born on 23 March 1928, in New York City. Her parents, Harry and Ruth Sammet, were both lawyers. Harry's legal practice included wills and estates; Ruth stopped working when she married. Jean and her younger sister, Helen, attended public elementary schools in Manhattan. Jean's interest in mathematics surfaced at a very young age but she could not attend the Bronx High School of Science because it didn't accept girls. Instead, Jean went to Julia Richman High School, an all-girls' public school, where she took every available math course.

After examining a number of college catalogs from women's colleges, Jean chose Mount Holyoke on the strength of its mathematics program.2 Jean majored in mathematics and took enough education courses to be certified to teach high school mathematics in New York; she minored in political science. After graduation, Jean pursued graduate studies at the University of Illinois, receiving herMA in 1949. She was a teaching assistant in the Mathematics department from 1948 to 1951 while taking courses toward a PhD.

In 1951, Jean began looking for a teaching position. New York City was not hiring new high school teachers

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of mathematics and so Jean looked in New Jersey. The authorities there determined that she was missing two courses: one in education and one in the history of New Jersey—Jean argued that knowledge of New Jersey did not enhance her ability to teach mathematics to high school students. This, however, was one of the few arguments Jean ever lost, and she decided to seek other types of employment.3

Professional employment

That fall, Jean took a job with the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company where she became part of a group who were training for actuarial positions. After six months on the job, trainees were asked if they wanted to learn about punched-card accounting machines. In spite of hermathematician's disdain for practical topics, Jean thought this sounded more interesting than what she was doing, and agreed to participate in the inhouse training program. To her utter amazement, she loved it. Unfortunately, when the training classes ended, Jean and her fellow students went back to their old jobs—and never even saw the electric accounting machines for which they had been trained. Finding the work repetitious and unrewarding, Jean leftMetropolitan and enrolled at Columbia University to pursue a PhD in mathematics. After working as a teaching assistant at Barnard College during the 19521953 school year, Jean decided that the academic life was not for her.

Jean's next position was as a mathematician working for Sperry Gyroscope in New York. Responsible for running an analog computer, she also spent time working on mathematical analysis problems for various clients, including the Department of the Navy's submarine program. One day, Jean's boss mentioned that Sperry was building a digital computer:

My boss's boss, my manager, came over to me one day and said, "By the way, do you know we're building a digital computer?" I said, "I've heard of it. I'm not sure I know what that means." He said, "We are building a digital computer, because we can see that that is the wave of the future." [T]his was a company that made its living on contracts with the Federal Government, and in particular with the military. . . . He said, "We're building this thing. Do you want to be our programmer?" I asked the obvious question: "What is a programmer?" And he said, "I don't know, but I know we need one!" I looked at him, and I said, "Well, is this anything like working with punch-cards?" And he said, "I'm not sure, but I think it might be."

So I thought, "Well, that punch-card stuff was fascinating. I'm not too inspired with this submarine stuff. I should at least give this a try." So I became the programmer. No books, no manuals, no instructions, no nothing—and engineers who somehow thought that machine was going...