of the tech workforce is made up of men. But did you know that the work of women played a pivotal role in laying down the foundations of today's modern technology? From working as human computers (advanced mathematicians prior to the invention of actual computers as we know them today), helping to form programming languages, programming the first digital computers, and championing advanced technology used in aeronautics and space research.
In fact, during WW2 women were in demand to work as mathematicians and programmers and between 1960 and 1984
computer science was a popular topic of study for women. As great as that sounds, there was still a sexist stigma at play. Computer science was labelled as a ‘womens job’
while the creation of computer hardware was considered more of a masculine role
. However in the mid 1960s, there was a growing interest
in programming, a demand for their work and a steep increase in salaries - it quickly took a U-turn from there!
Men looked to increase their visibility of the field and advance their own positions. Companies began recruiting with aptitude tests
that gave preference to “antisocial, mathematically inclined, and male” candidates. Women programmers began to be mocked in the press and including advertisements associating them with human error. In 1962, a Datamation article entitled ‘How to Hire a Women Programmer’ was particularly obnoxious stating: “She wears flat shoes, and she is a little cross-eyed
. Her figure resembles a full potato sack. Her dress and makeup indicate that she is a solid, plain-thinking person with no frills at all” that she cannot make a decision and then “goes home to ask her mother about it.”
Also, with the rise of personal computers in the 1980s, these computers that were considered more like toys (such as the commodore 64 and Radio Shack TRS-80s
) were heavily marketed towards boys and young men. This gave men greater access to explore programming in comparison to young girls. Right now, with the field being so male dominated, it’s important to encourage more women to explore tech careers and pay homage to the women who helped shape technology now. Here are a few honourable mentions:
Responsible for leading the software team at NASA during the space race, computer scientist Margaret Hamiltion was instrumental for the success of the Apollo 11 mission which made history in 1969. Rising through the ranks to become Head of Apollo Flight Software Development Team, Hamilton was responsible for the creation of the software within the spacecraft’s Apollo Guidance Computer - the first ever compact, digital flight computer of its kind.
As the stakes were so high and lives were on the line, the computer's programming had to be flawless. She made this software perform in an asynchronous
manner. Meaning, Hamilton designed the software to detect and mitigate errors in real time, recognise these errors and ignore the lower priority tasks
- an incredibly advanced task at the time. She gave her team assignments on specific priorities in order to deal with any unexpected errors and malfunctions that might happen during the mission.
This turned out to be a crucial safety precaution as Buzz Aldrin prematurely flipped the rendezvous radar
(a radar system that was only meant to be used during their departure) which caused a data overload
just as they were approaching the moon's surface. Thankfully the higher priority task (landing on the moon) overwrote this accidental command which was looking to perform 6400 operations per second
. Hamilton continued working on the computers for the following Apollo missions and Skylab (America's first space station) and today runs her own company called Hamilton Technologies.
The Six ENIAC Programmers
Six women mathematicians (Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Jean Jennings Bartik, Frances Snyder Holder, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Frances Bilas Spence, and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum) were programmers for the first general purpose digital computer
. It was called the ENIAC and was the US army's top secret project during WW2. It was designed and used to calculate artillery trajectories
and ran 1,000 faster than similar machines and 2,400 faster than a human working to calculate a trajectory. It was also used with early research into the hydrogen bomb
. It could run complex calculus
It was no easy task. The team of six women were given the machine blueprints, wiring diagrams for the panels then were instructed to: “figure out how the machine works and then figure out how to program it
.” They knew how to analyse the differential equations
, diagnose troubles with the machine, and physically hand-wire it in an age when programming tools were non-existent.
Shamefully, the women received absolutely no recognition for their work when the ENIAC was unveiled to the public in 1946
and weren’t given the spotlight or any kind of contribution to the war effort until the mid 1980s
Hedy Lamarr was a successful Hollywood actress in the golden age of cinema but she is also referred to as the mother of wi-fi
, GPS and bluetooth. She was dubbed as the ‘most beautiful woman in the world
’ by the legendary film company MGM, having starring roles in big hits of the 1930’s and 40’s. For a long, long time, society had ignored her genius and role as an influential inventor that has helped directly shape modern technology.
Lamarr alongside friend and composer George Antheneli were able to create and patent a secret communication system
which used frequency hopping amongst radio waves, it allowed the radio communications to hop from one frequency to the next with the purpose of ensuring allied torpedoes wouldn’t be discovered by the nazis. To break it down more simply, they created a radio signal that would be used in between a ship and a torpedo that wouldn’t be able to be hacked or jammed
- something the nazi happened to be very proficient in at the time. The design was patented in 1942
. Antheneli later admitted that Lamarr created the design
and he built the practice model.
It was intentionally presented to the US navy during WW2 but was rejected. However, the navy went on to share Lamarr’s design
to a contractor in the 1950’s to create a sonobuoy (a small buoy used in anti-submarine warfare and acoustic research) and frequency hopping was used frequently by the US during the Cuban missile crisis. Lamarr’s design has been the springboard and inspiration behind spread spectrum
which plays a fundamental component of modern technology, including wi-fi.
Dr Grace Hopper was both a renowned computer scientist and a rear admiral in the US navy. After gaining three mathematics degrees from both Vassar College and Yale, Hopper spent ten years teaching maths before joining the war efforts during WW2 under the WAVES programme (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services) where she was then assigned to work at Harvard. She was a part of the team that worked on the first ever Mark 1 computer
, which was a huge electromechanical calculator used in the war effort. In fact, it was Hopper who coined the term debugging after a moth got caught in the wiring!
In 1949, Hopper remained in the navy reserves but joined Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation where she and her team created the first compiler for programming languages
, converting common sense commands over to binary computer language. All programming languages that we use today are built from her work.
She’s responsible for the creation of the theory of machine-independent programming languages and went on to invent FLOW-MATIC
programming language which led to COBOL (a business oriented programming language still used today) and although COBOL was not her creation, Hopper encouraged its adaptation.
Trailblazing computer scientist, mathematician and rocket scientist Annie Easley was a staple at NASA for over three decades. She began her work at NASA as a human computer
(until machines replaced humans) doing computations for researchers in a lab and broadened her abilities by learning assembly language, FORTRAN and programming
As a gifted programmer at NASA, Easley worked on analysing alternative energy (including wind and solar) and she also was instrumental in working to understand the storage life for batteries. What makes her work so impactful is that her code for analyzing energy conversion systems have directly contributed to the development in the hybrid cars
we’re currently using today.
However, Easley is most well known for her software contributions to Centaur, nicknamed America’s WorkForce in Space
. It was the first of its kind because it was NASA’s first rocket that used liquid hydrogen, a lighter but complex fuel to work with at the time - but a really effective means of rocket fuel because it’s power. Because it was so difficult to use in the early stages, Easley was a part of the team that tested hydrogen and analysed data on the fuel. Her work on the Centaur helped create the technical foundations
for future NASA space shuttle projects, as well as weather and military satellites.
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