Women’s History Month: women in tech throughout the ages

Mar 01, 2021 - 7 min read
Educative
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March is Women’s History Month, a time to commemorate and celebrate women’s contributions to the world. Today, we turn our attention to notable figures throughout the history of technology. Many of these women have been ignored or erased from tech history.

Excluding women from the history of technology leads to the idea that women have not been at the forefront of innovation. Their contributions are seen as a subcategory of success.

But we cannot ignore them any longer. Women have always been at the forefront of computer science. In fact, many tools you use today were first created by women. “Women in tech" is not a bonus chapter. It is the history of tech.

So, today, we will introduce you to ten important women who forged the industry of computer science.

This guide at a glance:


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Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)

Ada Lovelace was an English mathematician, researcher, and writer. She is sometimes called the prophet of the computer age. After studying mathematics at the University of London, Lovelace pioneered one of the earliest versions of a computer, then called the Analytical Engine, which she documented in great detail.

She is, therefore, considered to be the first computer programmer, though her innovations to programming were not discovered until 1950.

She introduced the idea that code could also use letters and symbols instead of just numbers. She also theorized the idea of loops for computer science. Her writing shows that she wanted to automate computers to repeat instructions.

Fact: The programming language “Ada”, created by The U.S. Department of Defense, was named after Lovelace.

Quote: “The more I study, the more insatiable I feel my genius for it to be.”


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Grace Hopper (1906-1992)

Grace Hopper was a computer science pioneer who worked on the first US commercial computer. She created one of the first linkers and developed FLOW-MATIC, the first data processing language that mimics the English language. Her work popularized the idea of machine-independent languages, and FLOW-MATIC was eventually developed into COBOL, the standard operating language of the Navy.

This senior mathematician, Navy admiral, and programmer is best known for coining the term “computer bug”, which we use every day.

Fact: Hopper earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale, a very rare accomplishment at the time.

Quote: “If it’s a good idea, go ahead and do it. It’s much easier to apologize than it is to get permission.”


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Sister Mary Kenneth Keller (1913-1985)

Sister Mary was one of the first people to earn a doctorate degree in computer science and was an early pioneer for the accessibility of programming languages. She created the programming language BASIC, opening the door for anyone (not just mathematicians) to learn programming. If you are a programmer today, you have Sister Mary to thank!

BASIC was the first language that translated computer binary into something human-readable. For many years, she continued her work at higher-education institutions and advocated for free education, especially for women.

Fact: Sister Mary established the computing department at Clarke College in Iowa.

Quote: “We’re having an information explosion, among others, and it’s certainly obvious that information is of no use unless it’s available.”


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Edith Clarke (1883-1959)

Clarke was the first woman to be professionally employed as an electrical engineer. She was also the first female professor of electrical engineering. At MIT and GE, she developed the first transcontinental telephone line between California and New York.

Clarke’s innovation on electric power transmission lines led to the contemporary theories of currents. She also devised the Clark Calculator that solved hyperbolic functions, which is the first tool that supported “power grid” or “smart grid” technology.

Fact: Clarke is well known for her textbooks and papers, which are still used in education. Her papers won Best Regional Paper Prize in 1932 and Best National Paper Prize in 1941.


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WWII ENIAC Programmers (1940s)

The first modern computer programmers were a group of six women. During WWII, the government needed women to enter the workforce for the first time, and many joined as programmers and mathematicians. At the time, this job was considered blue collar work.

The ENIACcomputer was operated by a group of 6 women for US military efforts. Their names are Jean Jennings, Marlyn Wescoff, Ruth Lichterman, Betty Snyder, Frances Bilas, and Kay McNulty. Initially, these women were not given security clearance, so they coded the machine using paper diagrams.

Sadly, it was only the male engineers who received recognition for the development of the ENIAC, but the modern profession of programming is owed to these women.


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Karen Spärck Jones (1935-2007)

Karen Spärck Jones was a British computer scientist who discovered term weighting for information retrieval, database queries, and inverse document frequency (the basic concepts behind most search engines). Her work combined statistics, linguistics, and natural language processing with computation, which was the foundation for modern-day programming.

She published extensively on topics relating to computer science and advocated for women in STEM, arguing that they were vital to the success and future of computer science overall.

Fact: The Karen Spärck Jones Award was created in 2008 to commemorate her achievements and honor other innovators.

Quote: “I think it’s very important to get more women into computing. My slogan is: Computing is too important to be left to men.”


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Carol Shaw (1955-now)

Anyone who knows of the Atari 2600 should know Carol Shaw’s name. Shaw was the first professional female video game designer and programmer, best known for developing the vertically scrolling shooter games River Raid, 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe, Scramble (Activision) and Video Checkers.

She also wrote the Atari BASIC Reference Manual. Shaw later worked at Activision as an assembly language programmer and scholar.

Fact: Her game 3-D Tic Tac Toe (1978) took her six months to create.

Quote: “When I was in junior high and high school, I was good at math. I entered a bunch of math contests and won awards. Of course, people would say, “Gee, you’re good at math — for a girl.” That was kind of annoying. Why shouldn’t girls be good at math?”


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Timnit Gebru (1982-now)

Timnit Gebru is a widely respected leader and researcher in AI ethics. She is best known for her groundbreaking research paper, which revealed that facial recognition technology is 35% less likely to recognize people of color than white men. She is also the co-founder of Black in AI, a champion of diversity in tech.

Gebru formerly co-led Google’s Ethical Artificial Intelligence Team, but her employment ended after Google managers required her to withdraw an unpublished paper or remove the names of Google employees who contributed to it.

Fact: Before attaining her PhD from Stanford, Gebru worked at Apple Inc. and developed signal processing algorithms for the first iPad

Quote: “When people in leadership at Google talk about diplomacy, it usually means I need to control the narrative.


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Adele Goldberg (1945-now)

This computer scientist developed the programming language Smalltalk-80 and advanced object-oriented programming concepts. Smalltalk was used to prototype the icons, menus, windows, and icons (WIMP) for Xerox Parc, which led to the creation of modern interfaces and graphics. Many of her innovations and ideas were used by Apple for the Macintosh desktop environment.

She continues to serve as an educator in the field of computer science. She was inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame in 2010.

Fact: Goldberg initially refused to offer Steve Jobs a Smalltalk demonstration, but the Xerox managers overruled her decision.


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Cher Wang (1958-now)

Cher Wang is a Taiwanese entrepreneur and philanthropist who was one of the pioneers in the Android world. She remains one of the key players in the tech industry as co-founder and chairperson of HTC Corporation and integrated chipset maker VIA Technologies.

Her contributions have drastically changed the playing field for tech investors. She is now venturing into the virtual reality realm. According to Forbes, she is one of the most powerful women in computer technology today.

Fact: Wang is well known for her philanthropy, helping to fund a non-profit college that provides three years of low-cost education to students of low-income families.

Quote: “As entrepreneurs, we must continue to ask ourselves, What’s Next?


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