There’s More to the Story Than You Think: Women in Technology

March is Women’s History Month, a time to reflect on the contributions and movements that have come from women throughout history. Think about what you take for granted every day without thinking of where it came from or who invented it; would you immediately think a woman had created it? Take the modern medical syringe, an item that is now in every doctor’s office across the globe. The first patent for the single plunger syringe was given to a woman, Leticia Greer, in New York in the year 1899 (you can see the original patent application here). In 1966 a woman by the name of Stephanie Kwolek invented the first prototype for Kevlar, the material that would become integral in crash helmets, radial tires, and eventually bulletproof vests (learn more about her invention here). We also owe a lot of our modern inventions in computing and coding to women who were passionate about, and dedicated to improving, technology.

The first documented coding concept for a machine was invented by the Mathematician Ada Lovelace, who had become fascinated with Charles Babbage’s design for a computing machine. The Analytical Engine was conceptualized to perform long and complex mathematical equations in a short amount of time. Using the pattern designs from the Jacquard Loom, Lovelace conceptualized a set of “cards” that would have holes in them that would correspond with numbers and patterns established by the creator. These cards would be read through the holes by the machine and in turn produce a numerical answer. The notes on this card design that Lovelace published in a Scientific Memoirs journal are now considered to be the first plan for a “coding” system for a machine. The Analytical Engine could have been programmable, thus making it customize-able for various types of computing and the punch cards could then also be reused. Initially Ada Lovelace imagined that this engine would be used to create and play music, as well as do complex mathematics. Though the Analytic Engine was never constructed, the notes that Lovelace published set the ground work for the future of programming and computing. For more information on Ada Lovelace and her programming design, click here or visit The Ada Project website.

Another pioneer in computing and programming is Grace Hopper, an Admiral in the United States Navy. Have you ever “de-bugged” your computer? Well that term came from Grace Hopper herself! After removing a moth from the Mark I computer and taping it to her notebook, the term stuck and has been a part of our culture ever since. Hopper was born at the beginning of the 20th century in New York City. After completing her Bachelor’s in Mathematics, she went on the Yale to complete her Master’s and then her Ph.D. She taught for a number of years until she enlisted in the United States Navy Reserve where she was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project being researched at Harvard University. She was then later named as a Research Fellow. Her work was dedicated to the first large-scale computer named the Mark I, and would go on to help develop the Mark II and Mark III. After working with numerical code in computing, Hopper began work on the first computer compiler and computer programming language referred to as COBOL. It was her idea to start collecting programming commands for a shared library of codes in order to save time and reduce programming errors on projects. The collection of commands using binary code allowed for the computers to begin to understand basic phrases in English and then translate them into binary. She is called “Amazing Grace” for a reason! Learn more about her life and her work here, at the US Navy website.

Mathematicians have been integral in computer and science technologies and even space exploration. During the Space Race in the 1960s, Katherine Johnson paved the way for space flight and helped NASA put Astronauts into orbit, and put them on the Moon. Her story begins in West Virginia where she was born in 1918. From an early age she was gifted with incredible curiosity and determination to succeed. She moved ahead several grades when she was in middle school, and started high school at the age of 13. She graduated from West Virginia State College with honors and began a career teaching mathematics in 1937. By 1939, she was invited to become one of the first African American citizens to attend the Graduate program at the recently opened West Virginia University. Though she left the program early to marry and start a family, she still continued to teach math in local public schools. In 1952 she applied to become a computer for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) Langley Laboratory. At the time this computing section was all African American; science was still segregated. After her first two weeks, she was promoted to work on the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division where she analyzed data from flight tests. After the successful launch of Sputnik from Russia, her work became much more in demand.  As NACA (soon to be NASA) began to frantically develop a plan to put men into space, Johnson became an integral part of the team to calculate and analyze data in order to make that happen. Her calculations were used for the Freedom 7 mission in 1961 that put a human into orbit around the Earth, which led to her development of a set of calculations and equations that would make it possible to accurately determine the landing point of a space craft. However, her most famous project was the orbital mission of John Glenn, who demanded that she do the calculations for his orbit despite the mechanical machines that had been put in place to do all of it. He trusted her mind and her calculations with his life, and would not go into space until she had confirmed that the machine’s results were accurate. She did all of the thousands of calculations by hand, using only her desktop mechanical calculating machine, which was at the time the equivalent to a basic calculator. She was also asked to work on the plans for the moon landing and her calculations helped to ensure that the Lunar Lander would synch with the Command and Service Module. After 33 years in Langley, she retired. In 2015, at the age of 97 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. You can read more about her on the NASA website.

We owe a lot to the women who have taken their passions and followed them into greatness. These three women are just the tip of the iceberg on a long list of female led technology development throughout history. The next time you turn on your laptop, or use your phone to calculate, think of these women who had to create these technologies that we freely use today. For more on these women, click on the links provided or go to computerscience.org for more information on other women who have made history and the issues that women in technology are still facing.