Philosopher Turned Programmer Turned Lawyer (1937- Present)
Mary Allen Wilkes went from being a Wellesley College graduate with a degree in philosophy to the first person to have a personal computer in their home. Though originally looking to go to law school after getting her undergraduate degree, Wilkes saw the reality that the only positions she’d likely be able to work in would be as a law librarian or legal secretary— not an active attorney. In need of a job, Wilkes inquired about programming jobs at MIT. Because computers were a new technology that most people couldn’t access, prior experience in the field was not expected. Instead, Wilkes took an aptitude test as her application. Her scores showed a vibrant and logical mind that landed her a job at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. She would work there from 1959 to 1963.
At the beginning of her career, Wilkes was programming devices like the IBM 704, IBM 709, and TX-2. These models still required programs to be manually written on punch cards and their results printed out.
Hardware improvements allowed computer scientist Wesley Clark to design a new computer: the Laboratory Instrument Computer (LINC). Often considered the first interactive personal/home computer in the world, LINC was created with a user-friendly design. It included a keyboard, graphical user interface (GUI), CRT display, four knobs (serving as a mouse), ports for peripheral devices, and the ability to store data. Because Clark needed a software developer, Wilkes joined the LINC team in 1961.
Joining the LINC Team
Wilkes was to write the system’s software, known as LINC Assembly Program (LAP). LAP consisted of an assembler and screen editor. Wilkes designed the original operating system and its iterations all the way up to LAP6. She also authored the LAP6 Handbook and co-authored Programming with LINC with Wesley Clark.
Like the women before and after her, Wilkes’ work focused on making technology more accessible. She believed the most important demand on the online environment was “user efficiency,” rather than machine efficiency. For this reason, the team designed LAP in what they called “conversational mode.” In her handbook titled “Conversational Access to a 2048-Word Machine,” Wilkes summarizes LINC’s capabilities: “LAP6 is used to generate and edit text strings and to manipulate file entries (save, retrieve, replace, delete, or copy). Text strings formatted as LINC source programs are converted to binary machine form, filed, loaded, and checked out within the LAP6 framework.”
Essentially, LINC allowed for plain language statements to be translated into machine instruction, making the computer more accessible to users instead of computer professionals.
Wilkes left MIT in 1963 to travel the world. When she returned a year later, LINC’s development team had left MIT to form the Computer Systems Laboratory at Washington University. Ready to finish LINC’s operating system, but not ready to move to St. Louis, Wilkes had a LINC shipped to her parents’ Baltimore home. She spent 1964 to 1965 programming the computer, giving her the distinct honor of being one of the first people in the world to have a personal computer in their home.
Even with the success of LINC, Wilkes knew she didn’t want to be in the programming field forever. As she described it, “computers were intellectually stimulating but socially isolating.” In 1972, she applied and got into Harvard Law School, just as she’d dreamt about after college. She found success not only as an active trial lawyer but also as a professor in the Trial Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School, where she taught from 1983 to 2011.
Mary Allen Wilkes’ meticulously logical mind was only half of what allowed her to be so successful. The other half was her passion and creativity. These were what fueled her work. Wilkes, like Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper, was concerned with accessibility. Her work stemmed from a desire to simplify the processes that would allow technology to be brought to the masses.
You can hear Mary Allen Wilkes’ tell her incredible story in her own words here.
Be sure to check out our other blogs celebrating the women who shaped technology.
Written by Tanner Rubino ‘22 // Professional Writing