Their accomplishments may be seldom recognized, and throughout history, they have had to fight for their achievements in the first place. Even today, their prominence in tech is not what it should be. Yet there are many women in technology who have changed the world. We think these women deserve recognition and attention for their accomplishments and contributions, and for the opportunities they’ve created for other women in technology.
Though her contributions to computer science weren’t recognized until a century after her death in 1852, Ada Lovelace’s impact on the field is indisputable. Born in 1815 as Ada Byron, Lovelace was the daughter of Romantic poet Lord Byron and Anne Isabella Milbanke. Lady Byron, intent that her daughter not become like her father, ensured that young Ada received tutoring in mathematics and music.
When she was only 12 years old, Lovelace created a plan for a flying machine based on the anatomy of birds. At 17, she met Charles Babbage, inventor of the Difference Engine, and the two began a long and prolific correspondence. When Babbage came up with a design for a new kind of calculating machine, he enlisted Lovelace to translate an article about his theoretical Analytical Engine from French to English.
Lovelace spent nine months translating and adding her own lengthy notes. Lovelace’s notes indicate that she saw the machine’s true potential, predicting that computers would one day be used for a variety of tasks other than simple calculation, including creating music.
In 1979, U.S. Navy Commander Jack Cooper led an initiative to name a computer programming language after Lovelace. The programming language, Ada, is still used today.
The ENIAC Programmers
In 1946, a computer called the ENIAC was unveiled to the world: a completely electronic, programmable machine capable of running a ballistics trajectory in seconds. While the ENIAC became an important part of computer science history, the six women who made the ENIAC function remained invisible.
Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Jean Jennings Bartik, Frances Snyder Holberton, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Frances Bilas Spence and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum were responsible for programming the ENIAC, making it function. At that time, computer science was still nascent; there were no classes to take or books to reference. The ENIAC programmers used logical diagrams to program a classified machine made up of around 18,000 vacuum tubes, 3,000 switches and dozens of cables, and they were the only ones to do so at the machine level.
In the early 1900s, when Edith Clarke graduated from Vassar College with Phi Beta Kappa honors, women still had very few rights, despite the work of the Suffragettes. It was rare for women to attend college, and even more so for a woman to study a subject like mathematics or astronomy. After graduation, Clarke began teaching mathematics.
Not done with her education yet, Clarke studied civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin. She went on to study electrical engineering at MIT and earned her Master of Science in 1919; it was the first degree that department had awarded a woman.
Clarke was also the first woman to be employed as an engineer, having earned a salaried position as an electrical engineer with General Electric. She published many times and was the first woman to present a paper to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1926. Her work on a mathematical model called the method of symmetrical components revolutionized the industry, allowing electrical engineers to apply their work to larger systems than had previously been possible.
Jean E. Sammet
A computer programmer and scientist, Jean E. Sammet is best known for her work on FORMAC (FOrmula MAnipulation Compiler), which she created and managed at IBM. Sammet is the author of Programming Languages: History and Fundamentals, a book that has been a standard authority on the topic of computer programming since it was published in 1969.
Sammet was also the divisional program manager for Ada, the programming language named for Ada Lovelace. During that time, she was responsible for directing IBM’s Federal Systems Division, which was tasked with initiating the standardization and use of Ada. Among her many other achievements, Sammet has maintained historical files on programming languages that two different museums have called the best in the world.
Katherine Johnson’s career in mathematics started with an accelerated path through high school and college in West Virginia; she graduated with the highest honors in 1937 and took a teaching position in a black public school. In 1939, West Virginia started to integrate black students into graduate schools; Johnson was the only African-American female student to be chosen. However, Johnson left her graduate studies in math at West Virginia University at the end of her first session to raise a family.
In 1952, Johnson learned about an all-black computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (which became NASA), and she and her family moved to Newport News, Virginia, to pursue the opportunity. She eventually earned a permanent position in the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division, where she analyzed data from flight tests.
Johnson did trajectory analysis for America’s first human spaceflight and became the first woman to be credited as an author on a Flight Research Division report. Johnson is perhaps best known for running calculations for John Glenn’s 1962 spaceflight. While there were computers available to run these calculations, their unreliability and the complexity of the calculations caused Glenn to trust Johnson’s math more.
Rear Admiral Grace Hopper
Then Grace Brewster Murray, Grace Hopper graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College only 20 years after Edith Clarke, with a degree in mathematics and physics. She taught at Vassar for several years after receiving her master’s and Ph.D. from Yale, and she joined the U.S. Navy Reserve in 1943.
While with the Navy Reserve, Hopper served with the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University and continued to do research there for five years, until she became employed with the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation in 1949. While there, she was a pioneer in the field of using computers to translate mathematic code into language. She invented an operational compiler during that time, though nobody believed her or would use it. In 1959, she became the technical consultant on the committee that created the programming language COBOL.
Hopper became the director of the Navy’s Programming Languages Group in 1967 and developed validation software for COBOL. Her colleagues in the Navy sometimes referred to her as “Amazing” Grace, due to the extent of her accomplishments. In 1996, the Navy christened a ship in her honor, the USS Hopper.
A graphic artist, Susan Kare is perhaps best known for having created many of the icons and fonts for Apple’s Macintosh computers in the 1980s. Kare was brought on to Apple to design user interface elements, but soon after joining the company, she was promoted to creative director. Her designs were groundbreaking at the time and are echoed in icons we see today; Kare can be credited with the Lasso, Grabber and Paint Bucket icons that inform the design of modern user interfaces. She designed the Chicago typeface, and her work can still be seen on the Command key of Apple keyboards.
Brenda Laurel is a pioneer in the virtual reality design space, having co-founded Telepresence Research, a virtual reality company; co-designed and directed the Placeholder VR project; and written numerous works on virtual reality and other forms of interactive technology. During her career, Laurel has focused on improving first-person presence in virtual reality and creating an experience with a higher degree of interactivity and fidelity.
Laurel is perhaps best known for her work with Purple Moon, a video game company she co-founded. Having done exhaustive research on video games and why they seem not to appeal to girls, Laurel uses her interdisciplinary background in theater and interactive technology to pioneer new and diverse approaches to video games and other forms of interactive technology, such as virtual reality and augmented reality.
Dr. Ellen Ochoa
An accomplished astronaut, Dr. Ellen Ochoa is the director of the Johnson Space Center, the second woman to hold that position and the first-ever Hispanic director. Ochoa joined NASA in 1988, where she served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery, becoming the first Hispanic woman to ever visit space.
Ochoa’s contributions to the field of optics include the co-invention of an optical object recognition method, as well as a method for optical noise removal. She has received numerous awards and honors, including five schools named after her, and is the recipient of NASA’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Medal, as well as the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award.
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