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Mary Allen Wilkes

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Biography

Mary Allen Wilkes is a well-known computer scientist, famous for being the first person to use a home computer that she built herself. She is also one of the few women computer engineers who made her mark in what was a very male-dominated field in the 1950s and 60s.

Mary Wilkes was born in 1937 in Chicago, Illinois. She graduated from Wellesley College, in the class of 1959. She got her undergraduate degree in philosophy and then supposedly on a dare from her eighth-grade geography teacher, she took up computer programming. From 1959 to 1963 she worked at the MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. Her task was to create a programming language on LINC that could be used by starters. Here she worked with some early computers like the IBM 709 and the TX-2 and also simulated the LINC on the TX-2 computer. LINC or the Laboratory Instrument Computer was the first minicomputer. Starting in 1961, Wilkes began to write a series of LINC operating systems, their names starting with LAP till she finally reached LAP6. The Line Assembly Program (LAP) which served both as a operating system and a code assembler for the LINC. With LAP, the user could choose to write programs in an assembly language developed for the LINC or in machine code. Wilkes authored the LAP6 Handbook and co-authored with Wesley A. Clark the Programming the LINC.. The LINC, as conceptualized and implemented by Mary Wilkes, was the first operating system to sit between a program and the actual computer hardware.

Wilkes was the first person to design and work on a computer privately at home in 1965 and is regarded as the first home computer user. She is remembered for developing the assembler-linker model used in modern programming compilers. Soon after this feat, she left MIT and joined The Washington University in St. Louis at their Computer Systems Laboratory. Here she designed the multiply macromodule. Wilkes is especially well known for developing the assembler-linker model used in modern programming compilers and for conceptualizing and implementing the first operating system to sit between a program and the actual computer hardware. She was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and the Association for Computing Machinery.

Later, Wilkes left computer science and entered the Harvard University law school and went on to become a practicing attorney in Cambridge,, Massachusetts. She is remembered in the field of computer science for her contributions to both computer programming and hardware engineering.