Frances ‘Fran’ Allen
A Pioneer in the
World of Computing
“All the things I do are of a piece. I’m exploring the edges, finding new ways of doing things. It keeps me very, very engaged.”
The Fortran Automatic Coding System for the IBM 704 (15 October 1956), the first programmer's reference manual for Fortran
Throughout Fran’s storied career, she developed a number of breakthrough programming-language compilers In the early 1960s, Fran led a team of researchers that designed one of the first supercomputers, the Stretch Harvest—for the U.S. National Security Agency. The machine could decrypt messages using three different programming languages: FORTRAN, Autocoder, and Alpha.
She also designed and built the machine-independent, language-independent optimizing component of the Experimental Compiler for IBM’s Advanced Computing System. The code helped drive technological improvements of hardware design, and it created a new way to analyze and transform programs. Allen wrote a seminal paper, “Program Optimization,” first published internally at IBM in 1966. It describes a robust new framework for implementing program analysis and optimization as well as a powerful set of new algorithms.
The Stretch supercomputer —Engineers with Tractor tapes for Harvest
Redundant Subexpression Elimination— This optimization, which is also called common subexpression elimination, involves finding and eliminating those computations which calculate values already available. Consider the following examples in which the redundant subexpression is identified by being enclosed in a box.
Fran’s 1970 paper on Control Flow analysis introduced the notion of “intervals” and node dominance relations, important improvements over the control flow abstractions given in her earlier paper. Fran's 1972 paper which she co-wrote with fellow researcher and collaborator, John Cocke, “A Catalog of Optimizing Transformations”, identified and discussed many of the transformations commonly used today. These papers and her subsequent works, including the first paper on interprocedural analysis, initiated a vast outpouring of algorithms and methods launched by her pioneering projects and papers.
IBM Research Magazine
First Female Fellow
Fran became the first woman to become an IBM Fellow, receiving the company’s highest technical distinction in 1989. Fran was not the first woman at IBM Research; in fact, she was one of many. “Later, as computing emerged as a specialized field, employers began to require engineering credentials, which traditionally attracted few women. But the pendulum is swinging back as women enter the field from other areas such as medical informatics, user interfaces and computers in education.”
In 2006, the Association for Computing Machinery named Fran the recipient of the A.M. Turing Award for contributions that fundamentally improved the performance of computer programs in solving problems, and accelerated the use of high performance computing. As significant, it marked the first time a woman had received this honor. The Turing Award is widely considered the "Nobel Prize in Computing."
Fran’s contributions also extended earlier work in automatic program parallelization, which allows programs to use multiple processors simultaneously in order to obtain faster results. These techniques have made it possible to achieve high performance from computers while programming them in languages suitable to applications. They have contributed to advances in the use of high performance computers for solving problems such as weather forecasting, DNA matching, and national security functions
A passion for adventure and mountain climbing
When she wasn’t exploring new computing opportunities, Fran’s passions was seeking adventure, running, and climbing mountains. She was a member of the American Alpine Club and the Alpine Club of Canada, participating in exploratory expeditions to the Artic and on the Chinese/Tibet border. In an interview with author Janet Abbate, Fran reflected on her love for hiking and the mountains, and equated it to her career: “And, you know, it’s somewhat of the same sort of thing: it’s kind of challenging, and interesting; and how does one involve oneself in it? What capabilities does one bring to it that will make a difference?”
Following her retirement from IBM in 2002, Fran served as an IBM Fellow Emerita. A passionate researcher, she continued to be actively involved in the industry and worked closely with professional organizations to increase the role of women in computing. Fran was a member of the American Philosophical Society and the National Academy of Engineers and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Association of Computing Machinery, IEEE and the Computer History Museum. She was also bestowed with honorary Sc.D. degrees from several universities.