Inspiring women who made computing history
Did you know that behind every computer is a woman?
I didn’t. When I was growing up, I assumed men were behind the advent of desktop computing. Indeed, as PCs became more mainstream, the rising stars of the industry only reinforced that idea: Tim Berners-Lee ‘invented’ the Internet. Bill Gates birthed Microsoft and its ubiquitous software. Steve Jobs became an icon of style and design with Apple.
The truth is much different. Despite common assumptions, women formed the backbone of early computing and technology. Below, in honor of International Women’s Day, I’d like to highlight just a handful of the many women involved in developing the technology we use every day.
The birth of computing: Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace was present at the very genesis of computing. As the daughter of Lord Byron, she worked with Charles Babbage on his Difference Engine in the 1840s. She wrote what has been credited as the first computer code—before a computer even existed to run it! A hundred years later, that code influenced the development of computing as we know it today.
Wireless: Hedy Lamarr
Often better known as a Hollywood starlet, Hedy Lamarr also invented of spread-spectrum technology. She conceptualised the idea of frequency hopping, a method of sending radio signals from different frequency channels. Her efforts heavily influenced today’s WiFi and Bluetooth technologies.
Lamarr received a patent for her work in 1941 under her real name, Hedy Kiesler Markey.
ENIAC 6 & “women’s work”
As modern computing technology took off, first during WWII and then during the race to the moon, women were at the forefront of this emerging industry.
In the early days, the time-consuming and precise work of coding and data management was considered “women’s work.” In the early 1940s, a group of six women who were chosen by the US Army to program and debug the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), the world’s first entirely digital computer.
The women who made ENIAC work became known as the ENIAC 6:
- Betty Jean Jennings Bartik
- Frances Snyder Holberton
- Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum
- Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer
- Frances Bilas Spence
- Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli
Their supervisor, Adele Goldstine, another woman, also wrote the manual for the ENIAC. Unfortunately, the “ENIAC Girls” were not recognized for their programming work during their lifetimes, nor were most of them invited to the 50th Anniversary of the machine’s invention.
Grace Hopper was a pioneer in computer programming. She contributed to the Mark I computer while serving with the US Navy in World War II. She later also worked on the Mark II and Mark III computers before managing the programming development for the UNIVAC I and II.
As a result of her work, many refer to Hopper as ‘Grandma Cobol’, for her influence in the design of COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language) which, in turn, inspired most modern-day computing languages. For her contributions, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 2016.
FORMAC & Jean Sammet
Jean Sammet developed FORMAC, a programming language and system used for symbolic mathematics for IBM in the 1960s. Previously, she had managed software development for MOBIDIC, a computer made for the Army Signal Corps. at Sylvania Electric Products. She was also involved with the development of COBOL.
A hidden higure in the space race
The movie Hidden Figures tells the story of Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson and other African-American mathematicians who worked at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) during the Space Race. Johnson conducted technical work at NASA that spanned decades, calculating the trajectories, launch windows, and emergency back-up return paths for many flights on Project Mercury, including the early NASA missions. She also worked on the Apollo 11 flight to the Moon in 1969 and remained active through the Space Shuttle program.
NASA said of Johnson’s work, “her calculations proved as critical to the success of the Apollo Moon landing program, and the start of the Space Shuttle program, as they did to those first steps on the country’s journey into space.” She too earned a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
Mother of the Internet
In 1985, Radia Perlman invented the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP), making it possible to build massive data networks using Ethernet. As a result, she was named the “Mother of the Internet”, though she modestly eschewed the title, claiming “no single individual deserves credit.”
Remembering & celebrating women’s achievements
It turns out my assumptions about the male-dominated history of computing didn’t paint the complete picture. So what does all of this tell us?
Every time we log on to a computer, play a music file, or connect my phone over WiFi, I’m using tools that owe their existence and functionality to the work of women scientists.
March 8th is International Women’s Day, and we at Namecheap are proud to highlight the work of women in technology all over the world. We are truly grateful for their indispensable contributions to our industry and look forward to many new ideas in the future.
Grace Hopper at UNIVAC terminal – Unknown (Smithsonian Institution) – Flickr: Grace Hopper and UNIVAC, CC BY 2.0
Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson – By NASA; restored by Adam Cuerden – Public Domain