While you’ve probably heard of key men in technology like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, many of the influential women in tech have faded from the pages of history. In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re looking at some of the leading ladies who’ve played pivotal roles in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
Considered to be the first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace was a pioneer of early computing in the 1800s. A friend and mentee of inventor Charles Babbage, Lovelace proposed the initial concept of coding an analytical machine used for purposes other than mathematics. Lovelace’s contributions to the field of computer programming went widely unrecognized until nearly a hundred years after her death in 1852.
Grace Hopper was instrumental in developing the first compiler for computer languages, which translates words into code that can be processed and understood by computers. While a member of the U.S. Naval Reserve, Hopper worked on programming the Mark I, II, and III computers. Hopper also helped popularize the term “computer bug” after a moth short-circuited the Mark II computer. In honor of Hopper’s legacy, the Anita Borg Institute holds the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.
Jean Jennings Bartik, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Ruth Lichterman, Betty Snyder, Frances Spence, and Kay McNulty
Largely forgotten by history, this team of six women led the programming efforts of the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC). Developed at the University of Pennsylvania for the U.S. Army during World War II, ENIAC was one of the first digital computers and was developed to calculate ballistic missile trajectories. Without any user manual, these six mathematicians were tasked with discovering how ENIAC worked by physically programming the machine using cables and switches. Despite their importance in computer history, the ENIAC programmers weren’t recognized for their work until nearly fifty years later.
Erna Hoover is credited with developing the first computerized telephone switching system. A process still used at call centers today, Hoover’s program uses a computer to monitor incoming call traffic and adjust call acceptance rate to prevent system overload. In response to Hoover’s revolutionary invention, she was named the first female supervisor of a technical department at Bell Laboratories.
Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan
Now the subjects of the book and film Hidden Figures, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan were “human computers” at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Despite racial and gender discrimination, these three women were part of a larger team of female mathematicians calculating orbital trajectories for initial space explorations. With their determination and intelligence, Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughan paved the way for women in STEM fields for years to come.