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International Women's Day: Important Women in Computing

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Read Time: 6 mins

The 8th March 2017 is International Women's Day, a day to call for a more inclusive and equal world and a better working world for women. This year's theme is #BeBoldForChange, including challenging bias and recognizing the achievements of women.

To that end, this tutorial will help you learn about some of the influential women in the history of computing, especially women that you may not have heard of before.

Hedy Lamarr and Frequency-Hopping Spread Spectrum Transmission

Hedy LamarrHedy LamarrHedy Lamarr
Hedy Lamarr

If you're at all familiar with the work of Hedy Lamarr, it's likely as the 1930s and 40s Hollywood actress Less well-publicized are her accomplishments in radio guidance systems during the second world war. 

Along with composer George Antheil, Lamarr patented a frequency-hopping spread spectrum (FHSS) system that would prevent jamming of the radio guidance systems on torpedoes. The frequency-hopping system continually changed the radio signals sent to a torpedo, preventing the enemy from forcing the torpedo off course.

An updated and more easily-realized version of their system was implemented on Navy ships in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

Lamarr and Antheil's design inspired modern spread-spectrum technologies, such as CDMA, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth.

The Hidden Figures of NASA

The Hidden Figures of NASAThe Hidden Figures of NASAThe Hidden Figures of NASA
The Hidden Figures of NASA

Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson were three of the mostly women African-American research mathematicians, called human computers, at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and later the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

These human computers analyzed topics for spaceflight, read the data from aircraft black box recorders and performed precise mathematical computations.

Because of racial segregation laws implemented in the early 20th century, the African-American women in the computing pool at NACA were required to work and eat separately and use separate bathrooms from their white co-workers. NACA wasn't integrated until 1958, when it became NASA.

Katherine Johnson

As an aerospace technologist from 1958 until her retirement in 1986, Katherine Johnson worked on the calculations for many important NASA missions. 

Johnson calculated the launch window for the 1961 Mercury mission and the next year verified the electronic computer calculations for John Glenn's February 20, 1962 orbit. Glenn refused to fly until the calculations were manually checked by Johnson.

Later, using digital computers, Johnson calculated the trajectory for the Apollo flights, including the 1960 Apollo 11 flight and the 1970 Apollo 13 flight. 

When the Apollo 13 mission met with disaster, Johnson's work on creating on backup procedures helped save the lives of the three astronauts.

Dorothy Vaughn

After a decade of teaching, Dorothy Vaughn began her mathematics and programming career at Langley Research Center, performing calculations for flight paths and the Scout multi-stage orbital launch rockets. 

In 1949, she became the first African-American supervisor at NACA when she was assigned head of the West Area Computers, a pool of women African-American research mathematicians.

When NASA began using the first digital computers, Vaughn taught herself and her women coworkers the FORTRAN computer programming language and worked on FORTRAN calculations for NASA. 

Vaughn retired from NASA in 1971 after twenty-eight years.

Mary Jackson

Jackson began her engineering career in 1951 as a computer in the West Area Computing division. In 1953, she began working in the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, studying wind forces at twice the speed of sound.

To progress further in her career, Jackson needed to complete additional advanced graduate engineering courses, but the courses were being taught as part of a night program at a segregated all-white high school. 

Jackson successfully petitioned the city to be allowed to attend the classes, and in 1958 she became NASA's first woman African-American engineer.

Jackson eventually achieved the highest position within the NASA engineering department and realized she could not advance her career further without becoming a supervisor.

Instead, she accepted a demotion and became the Federal Women’s Program Manager in the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, allowing her the chance to positively influence the careers of other women mathematicians and engineers.

Ida Rhodes and UNIVAC I

Ida RhodesIda RhodesIda Rhodes
Ida Rhodes

Ida Rhodes, along with Betty Holberton, was one of six women to program ENIAC, designed the C-10 programming language for the UNIVAC I in the early 1950s. 

UNIVAC I, which stood for UNIVAC I Universal Automatic Computer I, was the first commercial computer to be produced in the United States and the first digital computer to be used by the U.S. Social Security Administration.

Rhodes is also credited as creator of the Jewish holidays calendar algorithm, still in use today.

Thelma Estrin and the Intersection of Gender Studies and Computer Science

Thelma Estrin had already distinguished herself as a computer scientist and engineer by 1961, having already organized the Data Processing Laboratory for the Brain Research Institute at UCLA, serving as Director of the Data Processing Laboratory from 1970 to 1980. 

Before that, she and her husband had travelled to Israel to set up the Weizmann Automatic Computer, or WEIZAC, the first computer built in Israel.

But it was in a 1996 paper that she bridged the divide between gender studies and computer science. She connected the two fields as disciplines that emerged in the 1960s but that had taken different paths. 

Estrin thought computing and biomedical engineering could be used to address key concerns of the feminist movement, specifically reproductive rights and women's health. She saw the values of feminism, including its epistemology and pedagogy, as a means to bring computer science to underserved populations. 

Estrin sought to divorce science and technology from its patriarchal history and create a place for women within science fields.

Latanya Sweeney and Privacy Technologies

After completing her undergraduate degree in computer science at Harvard University, Latanya Sweeney became the first African-American woman to earn a PhD in computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Sweeney developed the theory of k-anonymity and identifiability based on a limited number of factors. Building on her k-anonymity theory, and she's made several further discoveries related to identifiability. 

Sweeney has also testified before the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee and the European Union Commission. Sweeney currently works on privacy technologies and is the director of the Data Privacy Lab at the Harvard Institute of Quantitative Social Science.


While computing is often stereotyped as an occupation for men, it's obvious from this list of accomplishments that women have played just as big a role in the creation and development of computing and computer technologies.

This article lists some women you may have not heard of before or women whose accomplishments have been previously obscured. You may have learned something new about the history of women in computers; there are many more where these women came from.

Women continue to make a significant contribution to the fields of computer programming and computer science today. Now it's your chance to #BeBoldForChange: let me know about the women you admire in computing in the comments below.

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