The first programmers weren’t men, and the first computers weren’t machines. What they were, in both cases, were women.
Women’s many contributions to technology are frequently left out of the history books. But lately, that’s been changing — at least a little.
Ada Lovelace, considered the first computer programmer and a visionary for what programming and computers could eventually become, has a technology award named after her, and a holiday devoted to celebrating her legacy. Katherine Johnson meanwhile, the NASA “computer” responsible for successfully plotting the flight paths of some of America’s earliest space exploration expeditions, was the subject of the Hollywood blockbuster Hidden Figures (and the book it’s based on).
But the stories of far too many of the women who drove innovation in the 19th, 20th, and into the 21st centuries — these key technological architects of modern life — have long gone unheard, their praises unsung. What about the woman who created the Palm Pilot, the woman who made working from home a reality, the woman who invented online dating, or the woman who helped Obama save the internet? (Yes, they were all women.)
In honor of International Women’s Day, here are 15 great ladies of technology you really need to know about.
1. The women who cracked the secrets of the universe with computation: Williamina Fleming and the Harvard “Computers”
In the late 1800s, men at the Harvard College Observatory were busy gazing at the sky through telescopes, gathering data about the stars and the planets. But what to do with all this raw information?
The head of the Observatory, Edward Pickering, needed someone to crunch the astronomical numbers in order to calculate relationships and effectively measure the universe. Men reportedly turned down their noses at this “clerical” work. So Pickering asked his housemaid, Williamina Fleming, to work as a “computer” at Harvard.
Fleming agreed, going on to lead a team of more than 80 women who did the computational work that’s responsible for how we understand the universe today.
2. The first computer programmers: The Women of ENIAC
In the first half of the 20th century, Harvard’s “computers” grew into a unit of female mathematicians at what would become NASA and its Jet Propulsion Laboratory, working during World War II on behalf of the U.S. Military. The calculations they did plotting ballistic trajectories were time consuming and exceedingly complicated. Two men decided to build a machine that could carry out these calculations. It was called the ENIAC, and it’s now considered the first electrical computer.
But it was the women mathematicians who actually programmed the ENIAC. The ENIAC builders recruited six women who became the world’s first coders, manipulating the ENIAC to calculate missile trajectories.
The work they did for the army in the 1940s resulted in the first software program, the development of computer memory and storage, and the beginnings of programming language.
3. The ‘mother of computing’: Grace Hopper
“The mother of computing” also got her start in the military. In the late 1940s, Grace Hopper worked at the Harvard Computation Lab as part of the Navy Reserve, programming the Mark 1 computer that brought speed and accuracy to military initiatives.
Later, she transferred to the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corp, where she worked as a senior mathematician. She helped develop the UNIVAC I computer, the first business-oriented machine. Her accolades include creating the first compiler: software that translates arithmetic into language and unifies programming instruction. She was one of the architects of a “new compiled computer language” called COBOL, which is still a standard of data processing today. Most notably, she’s credited with the idea that computer code could be written and read like language.
4. The woman you have to thank for hybrid car batteries: Annie Easley
Annie Easley made the jump from “human computer” to computer programmer while working at the mid-century agency of what would become NASA. Running simulations at a freaking “Reactor Lab,” she was one of only four African-American employees. She is well known for her work encouraging women and people of color to enter STEM fields.
Later, her work as a programmer involved energy conversion systems. According to NASA, she “developed and implemented code” that led to the development of the battery used in the first hybrid cars. You’re welcome, Prius drivers.
5. The person who pioneered the gift that is ‘WFH’: Mary Allen Wilkes
Not only did Mary Allen Wilkes helped develop what is now considered the first “personal computer” — she was also the first person to have a PC in her home. Wilkes worked on the LINC computer as a programmer and instructions author. She is credited with writing the LINC’s operating program manual, and she was also the programmer of the LAP6 operating system for the LINC. In a 2011 interview, she revealed that she actually took the LINC home with her in order to write the operating system, helping to make working remotely a reality for so many of us today.
6. Her work inspired Steve Jobs’ creation of the first Apple computer: Adele Goldberg
Without this woman, the Apple desktop environment might not look the way it does today.
Goldberg was a researcher at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in the 1970s. She was the lone woman among a group of men who, together, built the Smalltalk-80 programming language and developed the infrastructure and design for overlapping windows on display screens, or “Graphical User Interface” (GUI).
In the PBS TV show Triumph of the Nerds, Goldberg revealed that she was forced by her superiors to show Smalltalk and the GUI to Steve Jobs and his team, even though she thought it wasn’t a good idea to show Jobs their intellectual property. In the same show, Jobs said he was transfixed by Smalltalk, and that he knew the GUI technology Goldberg had helped developed represented the future of computing, and of Apple.
7. The woman who basically invented online dating: Joan Ball
Unsurprisingly, a group of men at Harvard get credit for the first computerized dating service, called ‘Operation Match.’ But it was actually a woman in England who first devised a way to determine compatibility using a computer.
Joan Ball founded and ran the St. James Computer Dating Service, which she later re-named Com-Pat (short for “computerized compatibility). She translated survey answers about what a prospective lover did not want in a partner to punch cards, which she ran through a time-shared computer. Her program would reveal the “match” in the system, and people using the service would receive the name and address of whoever they had been paired with. She made the first match-by-computer in 1964 — a year before Operation Match at Harvard was up and running. So, Tinder and OkCupid users, you really have Joan Ball to thank.
8. ‘Google-ing’ something would never have occurred to men without her: Karen Spärck Jones
The search engines we use daily rely on the natural language processing discoveries made by one female computer scientist, Karen Spärck Jones. She was recruited to Cambridge into the “Language Research Unit” by another female professor, the computational linguist Margaret Masterman.
Jones’ most notable achievements laid the groundwork for the sort of information retrieval we use today. She introduced the use of thesauri into language processing, allowing for computational recognition of similar words. And she also introduced the idea and methods of “term weighing” in information retrieval, which helped queries determine which terms were the most relevant.
9. Before there was GoDaddy, there was this woman: Elizabeth “Jake” Feinler
Before it was called the internet, the ARPAnet was just a series of nodes, overseen by the Department of Defense, that connected several research institutions. The Stanford Research Institute was the “node” that oversaw the entire directory of the fledgling internet, through the “Network Information Center” (NIC). And the NIC was run by a researcher named Elizabeth (Jocelyn) Feinler, who more commonly went by “Jake.” (As a child, Feinler’s little sister’s pronunciation of her name, “Betty Jo,” sounded like “Baby Jake” — hence the nickname.)
Basically, Feinler’s outfit was the human Google, the organizational white and yellow pages of every domain on the internet. And if you needed to retrieve an address, or register a new one, you asked Jake. Feinler eventually helped the SRI transition to the Domain Name System (DNS); she helped introduce domain naming protocol, so we have Jake to thank for all the dot coms, dot nets, and dot govs out there today.
10. The person who made retro gaming awesome (before it was retro): Carol Shaw
If you love retro video games, thank Carol Shaw, who could have been behind some of your most cherished graphics.
Shaw is considered the first female video game designer and programmer. She is most famous for her 1982 game River Raid, but she also contributed to 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe (1979) and Video Checkers (1980), among many others. Her unpublished 1978 Polo is the first documented game designed and programmed by a woman. She was embedded in Atari from its earliest days, leaving an indelible mark on the video game industry.
11. Using Apple computers then and now was so intuitive because of her: Susan Kare
Building on the GUI inspired by Adele Goldberg’s team at PARC, the graphic designer Susan Kare is responsible for what remain some of Apple’s signature graphics to this day. First, she took on Steve Jobs’ directive to create a sleeker font for Apple — one that gave each letter its due amount of pixels, and didn’t attempt to make each uniform in the amount of space it took up (like a typewriter).
Kare also developed the idea that the graphics should be easily readable symbols, correlating to real world objects. This resulted in the Apple clock, the pointer finger, the trash can, and more. Even the Apple “command” key was of Kare’s design, inspired by a Swedish symbol for a castle.
12. She paved the way for the smartphone market: Donna Dubinsky
Before there was the iPhone, there was the Blackberry. And before there was the Blackberry … there was the Palm Pilot. Remember those?
The person responsible for introducing “personal digital assistants” (PDA) to the world was a businesswoman named Donna Dubinsky. Though built and prototyped by Jeff Hawkins, the Palm Pilot was brought to market by Dubinsky – an alum of Harvard Business School and Apple who built the first PDA company, Palm. After leaving Palm, Dubinsky founded Handspring, with its signature “Visor” PDA able to store data and access programs beyond a calendar and a few games. Sound familiar?
13. She helped Obama save the internet: Megan Smith
The White House’s third ever chief technology officer was a former Google VP named Megan Smith. Smith served as CTO under President Obama, helping to bring the U.S. government — parts of it reportedly still running on floppy disks in 2015 — into the 21st century.
Among other achievements, Smith closely advised President Obama on his decision to maintain net neutrality, and to endorse a free and open internet. She also created an online resource honoring and telling the stories of women in science and technology. And she strongly advocated for women’s inclusion in STEM fields.
14. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is awesome because of her: Victoria Alonso
The VFX industry is a notorious boys’ club, but one person who’s championed and innovated it from the beginning is the VFX producer Victoria Alonso.
Alonso is now Marvel Studios’ executive vice president of physical production. She has overseen the effects for many of the movies in the Avenger series, Guardians of the Galaxy, and many more. Alonso started her career as a production assistant, working her way up to be one of three top dogs at Marvel. She’s a boss lady if we’ve ever seen one.
15. Tech is more inclusive than ever thanks to her: Angelica Ross
After spending the first two decades of her life harassed by colleagues and shunned by her family for her sexual and gender identity, Angelica Ross, a transgender woman, is now one of the leading advocates for transgender opportunities in tech.
Ross is the founder of TransTech Social Enterprises, which focuses on “lifting people out of poverty” through social work and technical training, and helping gender-nonconforming people get opportunities in technical roles. Not only is Ross a trailblazer herself — she’s paying it forward.
Cheers to that. Happy International Women’s Day!
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