Five foundations of technology created by women

What a better way to celebrate this year’s International Women’s day than remembering women who made some of the most important advances in technology.

Women have been involved in tech since the earliest days and were once the predominant gender in computing. It was Grace Hopper, one of the pioneers mentioned here, who once said “Programming requires patience and the ability to handle detail. Women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming.”

Here are five foundations of technology that have been credited to brilliant women.

Computer programming

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace was the world’s first computer programmer. The English mathematician was the first person to write and publish a full set of instructions on how a computer could perform calculated computations with mathematical algorithms. Ada’s discovery was made in 1843 and still relates to how computers are used today. The machine she worked on was the Analytical Engine – the first general computer – invented by her friend Charles Babbage.  A century later, Lovelace’s work influenced Alan Turing’s ideas whilst decoding German communications during the Second World War. To recognise Ada’s work, “Ada Lovelace Day” was created. It is an international day of recognition that celebrates women in science, technology, engineering and maths.

The basis of Wi-fi and GPS

Hedy Lamarr, a famous Hollywood star from the 1930s whose star you can see in the Hollywood Hall of Fame, enjoyed creating inventions in her spare time. During World War II, Lamarr had a few acquaintances in the military and used to suggest improvements to their planes and other equipment. Lamarr learned that the U.S. navy radio-controlled torpedoes could easily be jammed and set off course and with the help of her friend George Antheil created a frequency-hopping signal that could not be tracked or jammed. The U.S. Navy would not usually adopt inventions created outside their organisation but finally accepted Lamarr’s proposal in the 1960s. The principals of their work are incorporated in Bluetooth, GPS and Wi-Fi technologies. Lamarr and Antheil received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioner Award in 1997, an annual prize for people who have made significant contributions to society through arts, science or business. They also hold a place in the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

The first compiler

Grace Murray Hopper, also known as “Amazing Grace” and “Grandma COBOL” had a Ph.D. in Mathematics from Yale University and was a professor in Mathematics. Hopper joined the Navy Reserves and began her computer career in 1944.  She was part of the team that developed the UNIVAC I computer at Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation and developed the first compiler – a programming language for the A-O System based on the English language that could transform English terms into machine-readable code. This inspired her to later develop COBOL – a compiled programming language designed for business use. Hopper also led the release of some of the first compiled languages like FLOW-MATIC. The USS Hopper missile destroyer ship from the U.S. Navy and the Hopper system – a supercomputer from the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) have been named after her. Furthermore, the term “bug” was first used by Hopper to describe a glitch when she found an actual moth causing problems to her computer.

BASIC programming language

BASIC – the Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code was developed and released in 1964 by a team at Dartmouth College. Sister Mary Kenneth Keller – a once-Sister of Charity from Cleveland, was part of this team, although at the time the college was male-only. The BASIC language allowed anyone who could master the language to be in a position to write custom software. Keller was an educator and the first woman to earn a Ph.D degree in Computer Science in the United States of America. After she finished her doctorate in 1965, she founded the Computer Science department in what is now Clarke University. Kelly believed in computers as a resource to increase access to information and education, and promoted the involvement of women in computing. Clarke University currently has a Computer and Information Services Centre and a scholarship named in Keller’s honour.

Software engineering

The term “software engineering” was first used by Margaret Hamilton while working for NASA developing software for Apollo 11, the first spacecraft that successfully placed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon in 1969. Hamilton insisted that “software engineering” should be credited as a serious science, the same as hardware engineering. She was an expert in systems design, software development, quality assurance, error detection and recovery techniques, end-to-end testing techniques and more. It was the thorough testing techniques and guidance software developed by the team lead by Hamilton, that allowed Apollo 11’s successful mission and what kept the astronauts safe.  The software was later used for the space shuttle Skylab. Hamilton received the NASA Exceptional Space Act Award in 2003 due to her technical and scientific contributions and the Presidential Medal of Freedom award in 2016.


Posted March 8, 2019 in