Ida Rhodes was a member of that clique of influential women at the heart of early computer development in the United States. Other members included Gertrude Blanch and, most famously, Grace Hopper. It has been said that in the early or mid-1940s, Rhodes was the first person ever to articulate the notion of "software".
Rhodes (birth name Hadassah Itzkowitz) was born in 1900 in the Ukraine. She came to the United States in 1913 and was studying math at Cornell University only six years later.
She received her BA in mathematics in February 1923 and her MA in September of the same year, graduating Phi Beta Kappa. She later studied at Columbia University in 1930 and 1931.
Rhodes held numerous positions involving mathematical computations before she joined the Mathematical Tables Project in 1940. There, under the wing of Gertrude Blanch, she matured into a one of the foremost experts in the development of digital computers.
She was a pioneer in the analysis of systems of programming, and with Betty Holberton designed the C-10 programming language in the early 1950s for the UNIVAC I. She also designed the original computer used for the Social Security Administration. In 1949, the Department of Commerce awarded her an exceptional Service Gold Medal for "significant pioneering leadership and outstanding contributions to the scientific progress of the Nation in the functional design and the application of electronic digital computing equipment."
Though she retired in 1964, Rhodes continued to consult for the Applied Mathematics Division of the National Bureau of Standards until 1971. Curiously, her work became much more widely known after her retirement, as she took the occasion to travel around the globe, lecturing and maintaining international correspondence.
In 1976, the Department of Commerce presented her with a further Certificate of Appreciation on the 25th Anniversary of UNIVAC I, and then at the 1981 Computer Conference cited her a third time as a "UNIVAC I pioneer." She died in 1986.
In an unusual case of an old specialized algorithm still in use, and still credited to the original developer, Rhodes was responsible for the "Jewish Holiday" algorithms used in calendar programs to this day.
I have a copy of a talk that Ida Rhodes gave in 1966, pleading for the ethical application of computer science and the standardization of programming languages. In the middle of the speech, she launches into a tirade against second-rate programmers. Suspecting that many readers will find this amusing, I include some of it below:
"We trumpet with loud fanfare the blessings of our huge array of devices, invented for the purpose of extending and enhancing our natural prowess, as well as freeing us from back-breaking, time-consuming tasks. . . . Embodying the awesome potentialities of the high speed computer and guided, at all times, by the highest dictates of an exalted human conscience, the new image [of computing tool as hero] could become a source of radiant hope for our strife-ridden, despair-laden world...
...Now, I submit, ladies and gentlemen that in order to become an accomplished automator, one must go through as much preparation and training as, say, a skilled physician or competent lawyer. Members of these, and numerous other, crafts, have wisely established rigid criteria for licensing their applicants. From my point of view, it will be a red letter day in the annals of electronic computation, when means will be found to keep rank amateurs away from our multi-million dollar DACs [Digital Automatic Computers]. These perennial bunglers tie up the machines with their error-laden routines which soon assume the visage of a ferocious Hydra, since each time they undertake to correct one of their goofs, they manage to introduce seven brand new ones.
This speech, by the way, was dedicated to her friend and mentor, the mathematician Gertrude Blanch. Blanch believed that, of all the brilliant physicists and mathematicians with whom she had worked, Rhodes was the greatest.
National Institute of Standards and Technology virtual museum
Blanch Anniversary Volume, February 21, 1967