The now fired Google engineer, James Damore, created a furore when he wrote a 10-page memo arguing that the company’s efforts to improve diversity were misguided because men may be more suited to working in tech than women.
Wherever Damore pulled his ideas from, they weren’t from history, because any history lesson on computer science would’ve taught Damore that women were the first software engineers.
That was until men, who had formerly disregarded the field in its early days, actively sought to push them out of the field.
Because of this, though, many of us are aware of the amazing women in leadership roles in the major tech companies and startups today, we are still in the dark about the earlier female pioneers of the industry whose significant contributions have been downplayed for decades.
In honour of International Women’s Day, in this tutorial I'll honour and adore those women who paved the way for the technology that we, today, take for granted.
1. Ada Lovelace
In 1843 Ada Lovelace, a brilliant mathematician and daughter of the renowned British poet Lord Byron, published a translation of an article on the Analytical Engine by an Italian engineer, Luigi Menabrea, to which she added extensive notes.
These notes included the first published description of a stepwise sequence of operations for solving certain mathematical problems. For this reason, Lovelace is now referred to as the first computer programmer.
Also known as the prophet of the computer age, Lovelace was the first to express the potential for computers outside mathematics when she speculated that the Analytical Engine might go beyond numbers and be programmed to compose complex pieces of music.
The idea of a machine that could manipulate symbols in accordance with rules, and numbers that could represent entities other than quantity, marks the fundamental transition from calculation to computation.
2. Hedy Lamarr
In 1942, at the height of the Second World War, Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr, along with co-inventor George Anthiel, became a pioneer in the field of wireless communications.
The duo developed a Secret Communications System that manipulated radio frequencies at irregular intervals between transmission and reception to form an unbreakable code that prevented classified messages from being intercepted by the Nazis.
Decades later their technology galvanised the digital communications boom by forming the technical backbone that makes mobile phones, fax machines and other wireless operations possible.
3. Jean Bartik
Jean Bartik was one of hundreds of women hired in 1945 to compute, by hand, ballistic firing tables for the U.S. Army using mechanical desktop calculators.
Following the development of an electronic device to compute firing tables automatically, Bartik was chosen along with five other women to work on the new machine, called the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer abbreviated to ENIAC.
Bartik and the team taught themselves ENIAC's operation and became its and the world's first programmers. Later, Bartik was also part of a group that converted ENIAC into a stored-program computer, a major milestone that improved its efficiency and usefulness.
4. Grace Hopper
After serving in the Second World War, Grace Hopper became a research fellow at Harvard where she worked with the Mark II and Mark III computers before moving into private industry.
In 1952, while overseeing programming for the UNIVAC computer at Remington Rand, she and her team created the first compiler—a program that converts language-based instructions into code so that they can be read and executed by a computer.
This compiler was a precursor to the Common Business Oriented Language or COBOL, earning her the name Mother of COBOL.
Hopper is also credited with popularising the terms computer bug and debugging. These terms grew out of an incident during her time at Harvard, when a moth was found to have shorted out the Mark II.
5. Evelyn Boyd Granville
In 1949, at a time when African Americans were being persecuted and excluded from almost every facet of American life, Evelyn Boyd Granville managed to become the second African-American woman in the country to earn a PhD in mathematics.
Granville was able to secure various teaching positions before landing a job at IBM in 1956.
When NASA contracted with IBM, she created computer software that analysed satellite orbits for Project Vanguard, a programme intended to launch the first artificial satellite into Earth’s orbit using a Vanguard rocket.
Granville later went on to work on the Apollo Project at North American Aviation.
6. Margaret Hamilton
During her illustrious career, Margaret Hamilton had many accomplishments. Arguably the most outstanding was her work for NASA.
In the 1960s Hamilton led a team tasked with developing software for the guidance and control systems of the in-flight command and lunar modules of the Apollo missions.
Hamilton, who coined the term software engineer to describe her work, really had to invent the wheel with her team, as no school at the time taught this field. Hamilton concentrated her work on software to detect system errors and recover information in a computer crash.
Both her approach to the Apollo software development and insistence on rigorous testing were critical to the success of the Apollo 11 mission.
7. Joan Ball
Talk about a woman ahead of her time. Joan Ball became a pioneer of computer dating when she opened the St. James Computer Dating Service in England in 1964.
It wasn’t until 1970, however, when certain improvements were made to computer technology, that her business really took off. The improvements allowed her 50,000 members to supply information on what they were looking for in a potential mate, before offering them details of the most compatible four singles.
Ms. Ball, who published her autobiography in 2015, says of her business, “When I first looked into it, I thought ‘this is fantastic.’ … We had so many marriages, it was unbelievable.”
8. Elizabeth Feinler
The next time you surf the web or buy a domain, think of Elizabeth Feinler. Feinler was responsible for pioneering and managing the ARPANET for the Defence Department, a network which was a forerunner of today’s Internet.
She also headed a team for SRI International which developed the first Internet yellow- and white-page servers as well as the first query-based network host name and address WHOIS server.
From 1972 until 1989 she was also responsible for managing the Host Naming Registry for the Internet. As part of this effort, she and her group developed the domain naming scheme of .com, .edu, .gov, .mil, .org, and .net, which is still in use today on the Internet.
9. Janese Swanson
Not only did Janese Swanson codevelop the hugely popular Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? video game, but in 1992 she branched out on her own with her company Kid One for Fun to focus on inventing her own tech toys.
When her first licensed toy was marketed exclusively to boys, however, Swanson knew that she had to do something to change perceptions about what kinds of toys girls wanted to play with.
As a result, in 1995 she started her company Girl Tech to focus on developing products and services that encourage girls to use new technologies, like the Internet and video games.
In 1998, Girl Tech was acquired for $6 million and Swanson became an art teacher, using computer technology in the classroom to encourage her students’ creativity.
10. Donna Dubinsky
Donna Dubinsky holds the distinction of having introduced the first successful personal digital assistant (PDA) to the world.
In 1992, when Dubinsky joined the eight-person start-up Palm Computing, it was just one of several companies developing a personal digital assistant.
Under her leadership, however, Palm was able to get the first successful PDA to market before its competitors, creating a multi-billion-dollar market it went on to dominate with a more than 70% market share.
Today, Dubinsky is working on developing a computer memory system modelled after the human brain.
These women represent just a small fraction of the many brilliant female minds that have shaped and continue to shape the world of computing. I’m sure you've got your own ideas of who should have been included here, so please feel free to leave a comment below and share your own favourites.
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