Female Role Models: Ida Rhodes, the woman who defined “software”
To put things into context:
Imagine Ukraine at the beginning of the 20th century. The country was divided between the Russian Empire and Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Ukraine was still not yet independent. However, they were undergoing an industrial revolution and overall modernization, at least.
Ida Rhodes was born originally as Hadassah Itzkowitz in 1900. She changed her name when she moved to the US. She was born in a Jewish village about 150 miles southwest of Kiev. Around this time, there were a lot of violent campaigns against Jewish people. Somehow, Ida managed to have a happy childhood anyway. She became friends with an influential Russian countess. This countess was rich and successful, with a passion for nature. She had wanted to adopt Ida, but apparently Ida told her it was impossible because she “already had a family”. Regardless, Ida was often a guest of the countess and even went horseback riding with her.
Ida Rhodes was a promising student:
Flash forward to 1913. Ida’s parents took her to the US right before the Bolshevik revolution. In a few years, Ida begins attending Cornell University. She ends up with a BA and an MA in math! She also studied at Columbia University later on, in 1930-31.
Professors took notice of Ida’s talents. They would even change the schedule of their classes so Ida could attend! Ida was a busy woman— she was working 12 hours a day from 1pm on as a nurse’s aid in the delivery room at Ithaca City Hospital. She ended up studying math because she could take all morning classes to fit in her work in the afternoon!
Ida meets Einstein and becomes part of the mathematical community:
Ida Rhodes met Einstein for the first time in 1922, but was too stunned by him to say a word. Years later, 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
Thankfully, she had become a bit more self confident with her work. She remained an active member of the math community.
Ida's brilliant career in technology:
Ida Rhodes worked in many positions involving calculations. However, her career in computing properly started in 1940. In this year, she joined the Mathematical Tables Project in New York, sponsored by the National Bureau of Standards (NBS). She worked with other female pioneers in Computer Science, such as Grace Hopper and Gertrude Blanch, whom she referred to as her mentors.
Ida first encountered a computer in 1947. Her boss at NBS sent her to Washington to learn about electronic computers. Her self confidence was still a bit lacking, and she left the job because she felt inadequate. But Washington loved her, and asked her to come back immediately to work on their project.
Ida analyzed systems of programming. Ida and Betty Holberton designed computer language C-10 for the UNIVAC I in the early 1950s. She also programmed the Social Security Administration’s first ever software! She was also a pioneer with language translation on comuters. She realized that it’s easier to translate when separating their roots from suffixes and prefixes, then use that to translate to Russian (her native language, and mine too!), into English.
Ida officially retired in 1964, but she continued working as a consultant for the NBS for another until 1971.
Lectures and contributions
Ida Rhodes was eager to share her knowledge and expertise. Throughout her life, she travelled to teach coding techniques and lectured on the benefits of computers. Accessibility was important to Ida. She made sure anyone could access her materials, and arranged specialized lectures for the handicapped.
Ida also donated her time and money to the Hebrew community. She created one of the oldest ever algorithms based on the Hebrew calendar. It’s still used these days, and 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. She got this 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, Ida was awarded a Certificate of Appreciation. In 1981, at the National Computer Conference in Chicago, she was referred to as a Univac pioneer.
Ida died in 1986 in Washington DC. She kept her sense of humor and irony until the very end. She used to joke that dimming her eyes had its upsides – it hid her wrinkles.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the story of this incredible and inspiring woman!