While we all know the significant names in tech, such as Wozniak and Musk, sometimes we forget about some other influential people in tech history. Specifically, the women who contributed to the technology we have today. These women laid the groundwork for these innovations, were the innovations, or pioneered them. Here are six women pioneers in tech history.
To many, Ada Lovelace is considered the very first computer programmer in an age when computers would have been considered science fiction. In 1833, at the age of 17, she met Charles Babbage, also known as the father of the computer. Babbage invented the difference engine to perform mathematical calculations. Lovelace, in turn, published her ideas on how to improve the device to handle letters and symbols as well as numbers. She also created looping using a process that we still use today.
Screen actress Hedy Lamarr laid the groundwork for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 63 years before it was widely used. She and George Antheil created a communication system that involved the use of frequency hopping amongst radio waves which they patented in 1942. These hopping frequencies prevented the interception of radio waves between a receiver and transmitter. Ironically, the U.S. Navy turned down the technology during World War II but later relied on it during the Cuban Missire Crisis twenty years later. While she didn’t get to see what came from her work, she was awarded a special Pioneer Award by the Electonic Frontier Foundation in 1997 and was admitted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.
Grace Hopper worked on the first large-scale automatic calculator while actively serving the U.S. Navy from 1943 to 1946. This device, the Mark I, was the precursor of electronic computers. During the course of her work on Mark I, Hopper wrote the first computer manual and the first extensive treatment on how to program a computer. She was also the first person to coin the term ‘computer bug.’ After the war, Hopper remained a naval reservist and continued to work on the subsequent Mark II and Mark III computers. Not done yet, Hopper also designed the first computer language to utilize words instead of symbols and one of the first compilers, which translated programming instructions to computer codes. Her work led to the creation of COBOL, which by the 1970's was the most common computer language in use. Hopper finally retired from military service at the age of 79 as a Rear Admiral. She continued her work in the private sector until her death in 1992.
Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson
As a black female born in 1918, Katherine Johnson was a quiet innovator, finally getting the accolades she deserves in the movie Hidden Figures which debuted in 2016. Johnson was exceptional in that she began attending high school at 13 on the campus of West Virginia State College, earning her degree in 1937. In 1939, she was chosen to be one of the first students to integrate West Virginia State University's graduate schools, notably as the first black female. Johnson's talent in mathematics led her to Langley, Virginia to work for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and eventually to NASA. Johnson was one of the first "computers" at NASA in 1952. After Sputnik was launched in 1962, America went into overdrive during the Space Race wanting to be the next nation to make it into orbit. When the astronauts were (understandably) worried about trusting the new electronic computing machines, they asked specifically for Johnson to perform the calculations. Johnson's calculations were instrumental in Alan Shepard's 1961 mission to become America's first human in spaceflight and most notably, the she was computer responsible for John Glenn's Friendship 7 space mission calculations at Glenn's personal request. Johnson retired in 1986 after 33 years working at Langley. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2015.
Although she disapproves of the moniker, Radia Perlman is most often dubbed the "Mother of the Internet." Perlman was one of only 50 females in a class of about 1,000 students during her undergrad years at MIT. She never let the gender imbalance dissuade her from pursuing her passion for mathematics and going on to a successful career in IT. In 1984, Perlman was tasked with developing a straightforward protocol that would solve a major information routing problem with her algorithm known as the Spanning Tree Protocol, which prevents bridge loops. This means that there’s always one active link within a network with backups in place if the link fails. This work has been described as setting up the ‘basic traffic rules’ for the internet. Not one to rest on her past work, she most continued to improve her algorithm with new protocol known as TRILL that corrected some of the shortcomings of spanning-trees. Perlman has an astounding 100+ patents under her belt as well as teaching courses at prestigious colleges and universities such as Harvard and MIT.
Neha Narkhede is the creative mind behind Apache Kafka, which she dubs the "central nervous system for companies" that she developed as a software engineer at LinkedIn. Her technology allows companies to process the tsunamis of data they receive every second quickly. Her keen awareness of the value of the software she developed led her to to co-founded her own company, Confluent, in 2014. Confluent builds Apache Kafka tools for companies, and Narkhede has been the driving force behind the platform’s wide-ranging success among some of the largest companies in the world. In January of 2020, Narkhede stepped down from her operational role at Confluent while remaining on the board of the organization.
These six women have changed how we use technology today. We wouldn't be where we are today without their contributions to technology innovation. These women pushed back against the biases they faced and made the world a better place which has opened the door for many more women to follow in their footsteps. With women like these as role models for the future, it’s exciting to think of what might come next.