One of the most prestigious prizes in computing, the $100,000 Turing Award, went to a woman Wednesday for the first time in the award's 40-year history.
Frances E. Allen, 75, was honored for her work at IBM Corp. on techniques for optimizing the performance of compilers, the programs that translate one computer language into another. This process is required to turn programming code into the binary zeros and ones actually read by a computer's colossal array of minuscule switches.
Allen joined IBM in 1957 after completing a master's degree in mathematics at the University of Michigan. At the time, IBM recruited women by circulating a brochure on campuses that was titled "My Fair Ladies."
When Allen joined Big Blue, an IBM team led by John Backus had just completed Fortran, one of the first high-level programming languages.
The point of Fortran was to develop a system that could operate a computer just as efficiently as previous "hand-coded" approaches directly assembled by programmers. Allen recalled Wednesday that her task at IBM was to replicate the achievement on multiple kinds of computers.
"I had the good fortune to work on one big project on good machines after another," she said.
Her work led her into varied assignments, including writing intelligence analysis software for the National Security Agency. More recently she helped design software for IBM's Blue Gene supercomputer.
She retired in 2002 but has stayed active in programs that encourage girls and women to study computer science.
"It's a very tough problem overall," she said. "Constant attention to it is important."
Since the Turing Award was first given in 1966 by the Association for Computing Machinery, previous winners have included luminaries in encryption, artificial intelligence, hypertext, networking and other vital elements of modern computing. All were men, including Backus, the 1977 winner.
Allen called it "high time for a woman," though she quickly added: "That's not why I got it."