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You may find it difficult to believe in today’s male-centric tech industry, but in the early days of IT, it was often the women who were the pioneers. Many of them have since been shunted aside, their contributions appropriated or minimized over time.
This International Women’s Day, let us introduce you to a few of them.
Although Ada Lovelace, daughter of poet Lord Byron, lived in pre-computer days, she is widely thought of as the first programmer. Asked to translate a journal article on her friend Charles Babbage’s proposed Analytical Engine, a mechanical device designed to perform advanced calculations, she added her own ideas on how codes could be created for the device to handle letters and symbols along with numbers, theorized a way for the engine to repeat a series of instructions (programmers today call it looping), and came up with other concepts now used in programming. She died in 1852, but her work was largely unrecognized until the 1950s. In 1980, the U.S. Department of Defense named the Ada computer language in her honour.
Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper
Credit: Smithsonian Institution. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0
Grace Murray Hopper was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer used during World War II. In 1944, she wrote the 500-plus page Manual of Operations for the Automatic Sequence-Controlled Calculator, detailing foundational operating principles for computers.
In 1945, while working on the development of the Mark II computer, she and her colleagues discovered a moth stuck in a relay in the malfunctioning machine. The offending insect was taped into the operations logbook – the original “computer bug”.
In 1952, her team developed the first compiler, then it went on to develop the first computer language using English-like commands, the predecessor to COBOL.
When they hear her name, many recall her as a glamourous actress, but Hedy Lamarr was also a tech pioneer whose work helped enable the telecommunications we rely on to this day. During World War II, to prevent the jamming of guidance signals to torpedoes, she developed the notion of frequency hopping, and she and friend George Antheil, a composer and musician who shared her interest in invention, developed a device that allowed transmitter and receiver to hop from frequency to frequency in sync, preventing interception of the signals. The concept is still used in WiFi, Bluetooth, and other wireless technology.
Before the book and movie Hidden Figures came out, very few people had heard of Katherine Johnson, and her colleagues Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. The three mathematicians were “computers” (yes, that’s really what people who did that work were called) who manually did the complex calculations required for spaceflight. When digital computers were introduced and used to calculate John Glenn’s orbital flight, Glenn refused to fly unless Johnson manually verified the machine’s figures.
Margaret Hamilton not only created the term “software engineering”, but she also developed software ranging from weather prediction systems to her ultimate achievement, designing the programs that got the Apollo 11 spacecraft to the moon and safely back again. Her failsafe system averted the abort of the moon landing.
Her team is also credited with the development of software for Skylab.
The networking world has Radia Perlman to thank for one of its key protocols. When she was working at Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) in the 1980s, she developed the algorithm for the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP), which allows a network to deliver data reliably by making it possible to design the network with redundant links, providing automatic backup paths if an active link fails, and disabling the links that are not part of the tree. This leaves a single, active path between any pair of network nodes.
It was adopted as – and remains – an IEEE standard for bridge technology.
Photo by Adrian Cadiz
Another of the women whose work had been shuffled out of sight, Gladys West, worked on the analysis of satellite data, ultimately making major contributions to global positioning system (GPS) technology. She worked for more than a decade developing software to model the shape of the earth, using complex algorithms to account for variations in gravitational, tidal, and other forces that distort Earth’s shape. Her model became the basis for the GPS.
We know there are many other women who have contributed – and continue to contribute – to technology. Who would you suggest we add to our list of luminaries? Let us know.