A (Semi) Brief (Semi) Untold History: Women in Tech Who Have Shaped Our World
10 Mar 2016
12 minute read
Here’s something a lot of people didn’t know. The first published computer programmer in history isn’t a man. No, it's not thought to be a super intelligent ape either. Or a dog or an alien.
It is, in fact, widely considered to be Ada Lovelace, also famous poet Lord Byron's daughter, and that fact is the least remarkable thing about her. That’s because she was the one who came up with the idea of and wrote the first algorithm that was intended for use by a machine, more or less prophesying the modern computer age.
While Charles Babbage, the inventor of the ‘analytical engine,’ the world’s first ‘programmable computer,’ and with whom Lovelace worked closely with, is widely considered the Godfather, as it were, of computers; Lovelace’s achievements were also significant. This is because she made the mental leap and the connection about what computers might one day become, assuming correctly, that they would eventually, with the right technology and thinking, be used to create music, art, and a whole cacophony of different things.
These days, of course, everything has changed, and the STEM industries have one of the most equal male to female ratios in any sector worldwide. Well, no it doesn’t. Of course, it doesn’t.
Technology is, sadly, again a sector with a vast gender imbalance. And here’s the thing. When you go looking, you find that history is littered with examples of pioneering women who were instrumental in creating the technological world in which we now live.
The idea that men alone, up until recent times have been the sole harbingers of the technology that surrounds us in the modern age is not only a misguided notion but completely false.
In the past, women’s main misfortune when it came to working in technology, seems to have just to have been born in a man’s world, where the men did the inventing, and women carried babies, and that was about it.
At least, that was the perception. Ada Lovelace is just one example of what I would consider being a woman out of time.
What is even more intriguing is, of course, the fact that Ada Lovelace, and the fabulous list of the few outstanding women you’re about to read about below, accomplished what they accomplished in such a male dominated environment.
Take, for example, Hedy Lamarr.
The War Years
Lamarr was an Austrian actor and a model who, when not starring in silver screen exploits in the golden age of Hollywood, essentially invented radio frequency hopping during World War 2. In doing so, she also created one of the first unbreakable codes of the modern era, which was no mean feat. After that, she also invented a new type of streetlight and a carbonated soft drink.
But it wasn’t until decades later that the significance of her work was recognised, her innovative talent was mostly overlooked for years afterward by the world in general for decades…
At roughly the same time as Lamarr was busy inventing radio frequency hopping, six women by the names of Frances Bilas Spence, Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Betty Snyder Holberton, and Betty Jean Jennings Bartik, began work in 1942 on a highly classified government project known as the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC.
Sure, there was a war on, but ENIAC is arguably considered to have been the world’s first “general” purpose computer. Working around the clock, the six women spent their days fixing, designing, and improving ENIAC so that it could more accurately calculate the ballistic properties of artillery fire. Ironically enough, back in 1942, their job titles were: “Computers.”
Mum of the Net
When it comes to the more modern age, there are considered to be any number of “fathers” of the internet, and why wouldn’t there be.
Even at the end of the 20th Century, technology was still ridiculously balanced in favour of men, with only around 20% of the workforce being female. God alone knows what it was like in the 70s and 80s.
Hence, it comes perhaps as no surprise that a pioneer such as Radia Perlman is often given the title of “Mother” of the internet. Just a quick FYI, she apparently hates this title.
It is, however, quite apt, as it was she that invented STP, or Spanning Tree Protocol, without which, the internet, and, therefore, the World Wide Web, would probably not exist the way it does today, if at all.
In basic terms, STP is one of the basic network protocols that allows network connectivity between computers, which when you think about, is fairly incredible. She’s also in the internet hall of fame and has received several major awards for her efforts, which is nice.
But it’s not like she invented STP and then stopped. She currently works for Intel, holds an estimated 50 separate patents, has written several books, and teaches kids coding using TORTIS, an educational version of robotics code, she altered herself so that children could understand it. Not bad. Not bad at all.
And then there’s Carol Shaw
Carol was a new one on me, and as a gamer with a history that goes as far back as 8-bit machines, I’m fairly ashamed that I was never made aware of Shaw before now.
That’s because Shaw is widely considered to have been one of, if not, the first female video game designer.
While originally starting out at Atari, Shaw jumped ship to Activision where she then wrote the code for some the most classic of classic video games of all times.
Games coded by Shaw include 3-D Tic Tac Toe, River Raid, Super Breakout, and Happy Trails. If you haven’t heard of at least one of these games, then you really should find out. Seriously, stop reading this now, Google them, and then come back and finish reading this article.
Next on our list is one Grace Murray Hopper
Anyone who has ever written some code, or learned the basics of programming will, of course, be familiar with the idea and the use of compilers to get things done.
Grace Murray Hopper, however, was the person responsible for developing the first ever compiler for a computer programming language. She also happened to hold the rank of US Navy Rear Admiral.
Hopper could be considered something of an anomaly in this list, as in 1973 she became the first person from the USA, and also the first woman ever, to be recognised by the British Computer Society and made a Distinguished Fellow.
She also happens to be an IEEE Fellow and also the winner of the Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award from back in 1964. To sum up, she was pretty impressive. I commend you to read more about her.
A brief history of the future
So while the truth today might be that world of tech is still widely regarded as a mostly male dominated affair, it’s only fair to say that women have been instrumental in some very key points of tech history.
The list above is anything but exhaustive. In fact, all I’ve done is pick 10 of these pioneers that I found to have led interesting lives. There are many more, and it's worth occasionally looking them up, as their influence has helped shape today’s world.
There are also hundreds of notable women working in STEM today who deserve a mention. For instance, Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook COO was recently named the most powerful woman alive today working in Tech, for the fourth year in a row, famously placing eighth on the list overall, according to Forbes.
The CEO of YouTube is a woman called Susan Wojcicki. The CEO of HP is Meg Whitman, and the Yahoo CEO is Marissa Mayer. Apple Senior VP is Angela Ahrendts. The Co-CEO of Oracle is Safra Catz, who has well as having the coolest name in tech, just so happens also to be female.
I’m just saying.
As I’ve already stated, women have been involved with tech and computers since the dawn of the technology. Their influence has been at the forefront of several breakthroughs, and today, and going forward into the future, what all the women above demonstrate is that it’s possible, and it’s also eminently doable to make a difference.
The difference between then and now, however, is that these days, women in tech probably won't have to wait two centuries or two decades to be recognised for their work and accomplishments.
Well, we can hope.
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