Culture

11 women behind the world’s greatest technological advances, from relativity to computing

17 minute read

They should be giants. They contributed to the theory of relativity, opened the world to space travel, created the first computer program and helped build the internet. These women all broke barriers in male-dominated fields, but in their lifetimes, most couldn’t overcome the highest barricade - the entrenched bias that still blocks them from getting the full credit and recognition they deserve for their groundbreaking achievements. 

It’s no wonder that in a recent PwC survey only 22% of university and pre-university students could name a “famous” woman in tech. And it’s no wonder that women still face uphill battles in the tech industry. Over half the women in the sector feel their gender limits their careers, and a large majority say they lack role models among senior leadership, support for career development, and a clear path to promotion, according to the 2022 WeAreTechWomen report.

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is urging the world to #BreakTheBias. Besides taking steps to increase diversity in our own workplace, we want to mark this day by shining a bright spotlight on the achievements of women in tech – to raise awareness that their accomplishments are not fleeting or marginal – they are lasting and profound. Here are 11 of the most important women in tech. Please read on and share the videos, books, and articles we’ve added. Let’s do our part to make them famous.

1. Ada Lovelace - The first computer programmer

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, was a 19th century English mathematician and daughter of poet Lord Byron. In 1833 she met scientist and inventor Charles Babbage, who introduced her to the first automated computer engine–his “Babbage Engine,” which she realized had more potential than being a mere calculation machine. Lovelace published the first algorithm meant to be carried out by the device in 1843, making her the first computer programmer.

READ: The New Yorker, on Ada Lovelace as the first tech visionary. 

Excerpt:“As people realized how important computer programming was, there was a greater backlash and an attempt to reclaim it as a male activity,” Aurora told me. “In order to keep that wealth and power in a man’s hands, there’s a backlash to try to redefine it as something a woman didn’t do, and shouldn’t do, and couldn’t do.”’

WATCH: Grandmother of Algorithms



2. Wilhelmina Fleming - The system for classifying the stars

She started out as a maid for professor Edward Charles Pickering, director of the Harvard College Observatory, but Pickering’s wife, and eventually the professor himself, saw more potential in her. In 1871, Pickering hired Fleming at the observatory and began teaching her how to analyze stellar spectra. Fleming became one of the founding members of the “Harvard Computers,” a group of women hired by Pickering to make measurements of the stars. Besides developing a star classification system, Fleming discovered the Horsehead Nebula in 1888.

READ: Atlas Obscura, on how women mapped the universe

Excerpt: While men were also employed as computers for various mathematical tasks, clerical work (barred to women before the Civil War) had begun to be viewed as “women’s work”–even when it involved intricate calculations, cataloguing, and data analysis. Many of the male scientists of the era would never have guessed that the “busywork” they handed to female computers in the late 1800s would go on to become so important.”

WATCH: The astronomer who discovered 300 stars



  1. Mileva Marić Einstein - Albert’s scientific partner

A physicist in her own right, Mileva Marić Einstein’s contribution to her husband Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, and to his other scientific endeavors, has been much-debated. Whether she was simply a good sounding board or a true creative force that got no credit for her work is still an open question, but according to a Scientific American article letters and … numerous testimonies show that Mileva Marić and Albert Einstein collaborated closely from their school days up to 1914.”

READ: Scientific American, on Mileva Marić’s “forgotten life”

Excerpt:

“Nobody made it clearer than Albert Einstein himself that they collaborated on special relativity when he wrote to Mileva on 27 March 1901: ‘How happy and proud I will be when the two of us together will have brought our work on relative motion to a victorious conclusion.’”

WATCH: The secret woman


  1. Hedy Lamarr - The woman who brought us WiFi

Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in 1914, Hedy Lamarr was known for most of her life as a glamorous MGM film star, but she clearly took a dim view of the superficial life: “Any girl can be glamorous,” she said. “All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” Her real love was technological innovation - and she excelled at it. Her most famous invention was a communications system that was able to guide torpedoes using a frequency-hopping system that prevented enemies from jamming guidance communications. Though she developed the system in 1942, she wasn’t recognized for it until 1997. This technology was the basis for GPS, WiFi, and Bluetooth.

READ: The National Women’s History Museum, on Lamarr’s pioneering tech innovations and her film career 

Excerpt:She once said, ‘Improving things comes naturally to me.’ She went on to create an upgraded stoplight and a tablet that dissolved in water to make a soda similar to Coca-Cola. However, her most significant invention was engineered as the United States geared up to enter World War II.” 

WATCH: The brilliant mind of a Hollywood legend



  1. Grace Hopper - Creator of computer languages

After earning a PhD in mathematics from Yale in 1934, Hopper decided to join the war effort after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She was accepted into the Navy in 1943 and began work on the IBM Mark 1 - the first electromechanical computer - and was one of the computer’s first programmers. She pioneered using words rather than symbols in programming language, creating the first business programming language - COBOL - that became one of the most popular computer languages in the world. Nicknamed “Amazing Grace” by colleagues, Hopper remained active in the Navy throughout her career, retiring as a rear admiral at age 79. 

READ: Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information age (biography) 

Excerpt: “There is no denying that Grace Murray Hopper became a minor celebrity during the autumn of her career, or that she came to personify computer programming…But Hopper’s career may have gone unnoticed by the public had it not been for an interview published on the popular CBS television show 60 Minutes…”

WATCH: She taught computers to talk



  1. Katherine Johnson - A once-hidden figure who sent astronauts to the moon

A college graduate - with highest honors - at age 18, Johnson taught in public schools and started a family before becoming one of the now-renowned NASA “computers” featured in the book and film Hidden Figures. Johnson then went beyond computing to mastering the complex calculations that put astronauts first into orbit, then on the moon. Her work was so precise that astronauts like John Glenn trusted her calculations over those electronic machines. She retired from NASA in 1966, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2015. 

READ: Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race (biography)

Excerpt: “Langley’s first female computing pool, started in 1935, had caused an uproar among the men of the laboratory. How could a female mind process something so rigorous and precise as math?”

WATCH: The NASA trailblazer



  1. Annie Easley - The rocket scientist who drove hybrid-car innovation

Easley was a rocket scientist - without a college degree. In 1955, Easley’s calculating skills landed her a job as a NASA “computer.” She easily made the jump to programming when machines replaced their human counterparts. 

She created and implemented code used to analyze alternative power technology - including batteries used in hybrid vehicles and in high-energy Centaur rockets. She also co-authored papers on nuclear engines in rockets, and worked on other solar-energy and wind projects. Eventually in the 1970s she obtained a degree in mathematics from Cleveland State. 

READ: Massive Science, on how Annie Easley rocketed past racial barriers

Excerpt: “Although Easley never had a movie made of her life, she was a hidden figure in her own right as a barrier-breaking mathematician and rocket scientist who worked on countless NASA projects for over 30 years.”

WATCH: Bio: Annie Easley


  1. Adele Goldberg - Steve Jobs took her work and made an Apple with it

After earning her PhD in information science, Goldberg joined Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center in the 1970s, becoming the only woman on a team that was building the Smalltalk-80 programming language, which helped create one of the first graphical user interfaces (think windows, icons, menus, and pointers) that are now omnipresent on every computer screen today. Had her superiors at Xerox listened to her when Steve Jobs asked to see her team’s technology, the Apple may never have come to full fruition.

READ: The Centre for Computing History on Adele Goldberg’s encounter with Steve Jobs and her PC legacy

Excerpt:Adele refused to give Steve Jobs and his engineers a Smalltalk demonstration in 1979, suspecting that Apple would appropriate the [GUI] technology.”

WATCH: Goldberg, in her own words



  1. Karen Spärck Jones - Search engines are based on her technology

A schoolteacher who studied history and philosophy, Spärck Jones began working with computers in the 1950s, focusing on natural language processing and information retrieval. In 1972, she pioneered the concept of inverse document frequency, which uses a numerical statistic to weigh the importance of a word to a document in a collection or corpus. Her system laid the groundwork for the modern search engine.

READ: The New York Times on Jones’s pioneering work in combining statistics with linguistics

Excerpt:Spärck Jones also foreshadowed by decades Silicon Valley’s current reckoning, warning about the risks of technology being led by computer scientists who were not attuned to its social implications.”

WATCH: From the trauma of war, to a life of brilliant achievements



  1. Radia Perlman - Her invention keeps data moving on the Internet

After graduating from MIT in the 1970s, Perlman began working on networking software. Digital Equipment Corp. offered her a job in 1980 after seeing a presentation on network routing. They needed a reliable way to get computers to share information and when they asked Perlman to help, she produced a solution still in use to this day: the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP), which allows networks to be designed with backup links and prevents data looping.

READ: Lemelson-MIT, on how Perlman found a way for computers share information reliably

Excerpt: “Perlman’s work has been described as having put the “basic traffic rules into place” for the Internet. STP ensures that a network remains configured in any event to ensure that data is delivered whenever a user or machine calls for it.”

WATCH: Making data flow like music



  1. Elizabeth “Jake” Feinler - Pioneer of internet domains

In the 1950s, after studying biochemistry at Purdue University, Elizabeth “Jake” Feinler got a job that involved indexing the world’s chemical compounds. Intrigued by the challenge of compiling such a vast amount of data, she never returned to biochemistry, and instead became an information-science pioneer. She managed the Network Information Center (NIC) for ARPANET, the Defense Data Network (DDN), which were forerunners of the modern internet. Feinler’s group managed the internet’s host-naming registry in the 1970s-1980s, developing the domain naming conventions of .com, .edu, .gov, .mil, .org, and .net

READ: Wired, on how Jake Feinler helped turn a government network into something much bigger 

Excerpt: “Feinler was among a small group of researchers who bootstrapped this government network into something that would one day connect one third of the world's population.” 

WATCH: Jake Feinler, on creating the “phone book of the internet” 

 

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to recognize the amazing and varied accomplishments of women throughout history and today and #BreakTheBias around gender steretypes. This is what we’re doing at Cutover to close the tech gender gap.