Lorinda Cherry received her Master’s in Computer Science from Stevens Institute of Technology in 1969, at a time when the computer science program was more of a specialized math degree, with some programming courses but little theory. She worked for a few years as a Fortran programmer, but found it “very boring” to constantly write programs based on someone else’s ideas. She yearned to work on systems, but there were few entry points for such jobs: individual labs tended to recruit new graduates and train them in their in-house programming language, and Cherry was already overqualified. She eventually found a home at Bell Labs, where she worked on the nascent Unix operating system, which had not yet made the switch to C when she joined the team.
Cherry thrived in the collaborative and creative environment of Bell Labs, which encouraged programmers to imagine and execute projects that interested them. She worked on several influential mathematical tools, including a desk-calculator language (bc); eqn, a typesetting system for publishing mathematical formulae; and a method of data compression based on trigram statistics, among others. In these years, Cherry recalls, the potential of the computer had barely been tapped, and if asked what she did for a living, she would say that her job was to “see what kind of neat new things I can make the computer do, and in those days the computer wasn’t doing a lot, but it was super interesting and there was a lot more stuff you could make it do.”
An early strength of the Unix system was the way it allowed different programs to cooperate on a task, and Cherry, who described herself as “thinking in Unix,” often found ways to apply an insight or feature from one application to a seemingly unrelated context. Thus, one of the first spell-check programs, typo, evolved from her statistics work. Cherry went on to help develop other text-related projects, including Writer’s Workbench, an editing program that was eagerly embraced by high school and college English departments.
Cherry found inspiration for her work in every area of her life, from rally car racing to dog training. In fact, she authored a series of papers on using statistical analysis to evaluate the unconscious bias of dog show judges toward certain characteristics or breeds. As she told one interviewer, “I’m a practitioner. I’m off to write programs with any excuse or activity.”