SAN FRANCISCO — The nation’s chief technology officer asked an audience of thousands of computer scientists to help her with a real-life scavenger hunt — finding a key document in the history of women’s rights that’s been missing for more than 160 years.

U.S. CTO Megan Smith spoke at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Technology in Houston on Wednesday.

Since she got to the White House last year, one of Smith’s interests has been bringing to light the often forgotten role of women and people of color in science and technology.

That interest also led her to Seneca Falls, N.Y., site of the world’s first women’s right convention in 1848.

Later, on Wikipedia, she read the stirring words of the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments drafted there.

At the White House she asked the Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, if he had the original.

Smith discovered it’s been missing almost since the day it was adopted on July 20, 1848.

The historians in the archive took up the hunt with vigor, reporting back every few weeks that they’d found hints or traces, but never the paper itself.

As she wrote in the White House blog Wednesday, “the tea table upon which the original declaration was drafted has been found, but the document itself is still missing.”

A tech crowd of resourceful people who dote on puzzles — and whose lives are profoundly touched by the efforts of those who went before them — seemed a great place to start.

So at Hopper, the largest gathering of women technologists in the world, she put out a call for help.

“We wanted to launch this treasure hunt at this amazing community of women,” Smith said.

Finding the document would be remarkable, say researchers.

“It’s incredibly important, it’s like the Declaration of Independence except it reads so much better,” said historian Judith Wellman, author of The Road to Seneca Falls.

At a time when women had almost no legal rights, the declaration calls for men to end their tyranny over women and allow them to be educated, preach, work for pay and vote.

The trail long ago went cold. The Declaration was probably written out in longhand by the secretary of the conference, Quaker abolitionist Mary Ann M’Clintock, said Wellman.

What happened to it next is unknown.

Author and abolitionist Frederick Douglass attended the conference and was one of the Declaration’s signers. He took either the original or a copy with him to Rochester, NY and published it in his influential newspaper The North Star.  From there it was picked up by papers nationwide.

“It touched a nerve,” Wellman said.

She believes the Declaration was probably among Douglass’ papers that burned when a fire destroyed his home in 1872. Outside of a small number of scholars, “I don’t think anybody noticed or cared,” she said.

She’s thrilled that Smith has started the hunt.  While it’s unlikely the original notes still exist, there’s always the possibility they could be found.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if they were?” she said.

Follow USA TODAY tech reporter Elizabeth Weise on Twitter: @eweise.

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