Frances Allen, whose work on computer compilation helped build most of the foundations of modern computer programming, died on August 4th, on her 88th birthday,media reported. She was the first woman to win the Turing Prize and the first female IBM researcher. Allen is determined to make the tedious compilation process — converting software programs into 1 and 0 — to be more efficient. The work became a hallmark of her career.
After earning a master’s degree in mathematics from the University of Michigan, Allen worked in IBM Research in Poughpsi, N.Y., in 1957, and plans to work until he pays off his student loans. She taught IBM employees the basics of the new Fortran language and later became one of the three designers of the company’s HarvestStretch project.
Allen also served as a language liaison for IBM and the National Security Agency, where she helped design and build Alpha, which IBM describes as “a very advanced code-breaking language characterized by the ability to create new letters outside of system-defined letters.” The New York Times’s obituary of Allen noted that the Stretch-Harvest machine was used to analyze communications intercepted by American spies. Allen helped build its compiler, as well as its programming language.
In a 2002 new York Times article, Allen said that initially there was a lot of skepticism about Fortran, and that doubts about how effective lying it could make computer programming easier and more efficient was a major focus of her career. “There’s a lot of resistance,” she said. “They are convinced that no higher-level language can do as well as assembly language.” But the work inspired her interest in compilation, she later said, “because it has a direct inheritance from modern compilers.”
Allen helped build an experimental compiler for IBM’s advanced computing systems, and from the 1980s to the mid-1990s she led an IBM research team to study new concepts of parallel computing, which were widely used in personal computers. She also helped develop software for IBM’s Blue Gene Supercomputer Project.
In a thank-you note, IBM said Allen had made a pioneering contribution to programming and compiler research. She also published several papers on program optimization and flow-control analysis, and co-wrote “A Catalog of The Optimization” with John Cocke, an IBM computer scientist, in 1972.
Allen worked at IBM for 45 years before retiring in 2002. She won the Turing Prize in 2006. According to IBM, Allen is a strong supporter of other women programming, was inducted into the International Women in Science and Technology Hall of Fame and received the Augusta Ada Lovelace Award from the Computer Women’s Association.
“She broke the invisible barrier,” her colleague Mark Wegman told the New York Times. “At the time, no one thought that someone like her could achieve her.”