In honour of International Women’s Day yesterday, I plan to #PressForProgress by dedicating today’s post to the celebration of women’s achievements in technology!
As a woman who works in a mainly male-dominated field, and with the #TimesUp movement being such a strong movement in the media currently, it feels ever more important to remind the world again just how the struggles and achievements of women have been downplayed and most often overlooked in comparison to those of men throughout history.
So for this post I’ve chosen to write about 3 women whose influence in STEM have shaped it to be what it is today, and who have inspired me and undoubtedly countless other women in technology today!
Here are 3 inspirational women in STEM history who you may not have learnt about in school:
1. ADA LOVELACE Computing visionary and the first computer programmer
Ada Lovelace is widely considered the world’s first computer programmer, although some historians do dispute this due to her close work with Charles Babbage. Born in London in 1815, she grew up in an era where girls weren’t encouraged to engage in the sciences; the only reason she did pursue maths was due to her mother’s adamance that she not turn out like her poet father, Lord Byron!
At 18, she met and began working closely with the mathematician and engineer Charles Babbage, who designed and built a small working model of the first mechanical computer called the Difference Engine in 1822, and who is known today as the father of the computer. Lovelace became enthralled with his ideas of a mechanical computer and when he began to design the Analytical Engine, a computer for making more general calculations, Lovelace saw more potential for it than even Babbage himself.
Despite the first programmable computer not being invented until 1936 (84 years after her death), her thoughts on the potential application of such engines, which she noted in great detail while translating Luigi Menabrea’s article on Analytical Engines from french, were so original for the time that even now they are considered visionary. In her notes (which were almost twice as long as Menabrea’s original article!), she realised the potential for Babbage’s engine to not only be used as a way of making calculations with numbers, but also theorised on how it could be used to apply calculation regarding real world problems such as composing symphonies if set up to do so, and included what is now considered as the first computer program.
Quite an accomplishment, considering the computer she wrote it for was merely hypothetical at the time!
2. KATHERINE JOHNSON Pioneer in space science and computing
Before NACA (known today as NASA) used computers, human computers would painstakingly calculate everything by hand.
Katherine Johnson (née Coleman) was born in West Virginia in the US in 1918, where her love of learning emerged at an early age and her affinity for maths inspired her decision to become a mathematician. Despite the limited educational opportunities for African Americans at the time, she began high school at the age of 10 and started West Virginia State college when she was 15; here she was encouraged to pursue her love of maths by one of her professors, Dr. William W. Schieffelin Claytor (the third African American to earn a PhD in mathematics), and she ended up graduating with degrees in mathematics and french at the age of 18!
After graduating, she became a teacher at segregated schools but at the age of 34 she heard that NACA was hiring African American women as human computers solving math problems, a job that she was offered in 1953. You may have seen the 2016 film Hidden Figures that tells her story, alongside the stories of her female peers at the time. Despite doing the most important work behind NACA’s success, Johnson and her peers were still subjected to racial discrimination by way of keeping them segregated from their white colleagues, being paid less than their male counterparts and even being assigned separate toilets and dining areas; they were quite literally hidden despite being the motors behind NACA’s success.
Johnson achievements include calculating the trajectory of the flight of the first American in space, as well as the 1961 Mercury mission. Her calculations were so accurate that even when computers were first being used by NASA in 1962 for John Glenn’s orbit and the 1969 Apollo 11 trajectory to the moon, the engineers still had Johnson double check the results.
What made Johnson stand out was her drive to learn more and her love of always asking questions, which was not always encouraged in women at the time, and she broke protocol when she attended editorial meetings that had only ever been men-only; this enabled her to move out of the ‘pool of computers in skirts’ and into the flight research team and progress her career in NASA.
Katherine Johnson achieved her dreams of becoming a research mathematician by working against the racial discrimination and sexism that was prevalent at the time, making her a truly inspiring woman in STEM.
3. GRACE HOPPER Computer programming pioneer and creator of the compiler
Born Grace Murray in 1906 in New York, from an early age Grace Hopper had an inquisitive mind, which was encouraged by both of her parents; her mother, who herself had wanted to learn maths but was discouraged due to it not being seen as a ‘ladylike’ passion, and her father, who wanted all of his children to be self-sufficient and so gave his daughters the same education as their brother.
Hopper studied maths and physics at college, graduating in 1928 after which she continued to study at Yale, receiving her masters degree in maths in 1930. She began to teach at Vassar while continuing to study at Yale, where in 1934 she became one of the first women to earn a PhD in maths. She continued teaching at Vassar, becoming an associate professor, until World War II where she opted to join the US Naval Reserve in 1943, where she was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University due to her mathematical background. It was here that she learned to program a Mark I computer, becoming one of the first computer programmers.
After the war ended in 1945, she applied to transfer to the regular Navy but was denied due to her age, so she continued to work at Harvard as a research fellow under a Navy contract, after turning down a full professorship at Vassar. She worked with the Mark II and Mark III computers at Harvard, and is known for popularising the term ‘computer bug’ after finding a moth inside the Mark II.
Grace started working as the senior mathematician for Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation in 1949 on the team developing a new computer called UNIVAC I (UNIVersal Automatic Computer I), and it was in this position that she created the compiler. The compiler was a revolutionary creation at the time and is a crucial element in programming today, as its purpose is to translate high-level programming languages such as Java or C++ into a more abstract low-level language that the computer can understand, such as machine language. This means a programmer can code using a language that they can understand without having to worry about how to communicate to the computer, therefore freeing them to focus on alogirithms and logic. Colleagues had initially been resistant to the idea of the compiler, and Hopper believed it was because they liked being one of the few who could communicate directly with the computer, an idea that she opposed: she believed anyone should be able to program, and thanks to the use of the compiler, anyone can.
Grace Hopper made many contributions to technology that helped evolve it into what it is today. To name just a few, she was part of the team that developed Flow-Matic (the first English-language data processing compiler), she invented the language APT and verified the language COBOL. However, aside from building the compiler, she believed her best accomplishment to be the training and mentorship she gave to younger people; throughout her career, she shared her knowledge with, inspired and encouraged many young people, and her legacy has paved the way for women to be taken seriously in the progression of technology.
There are so many women in the history of STEM that have made incredible contributions and I wish I could include all of them in this post! It’s been so much fun researching this, that I’m already planning on posting another one next month!
Even if you’re not a woman in STEM, it’s hard not to be inspired by these women: they not only pursued their interests at a time when it was not conventional for a woman to do so (and in the case of Katherine Johnson, did so in the face of racial prejudice) but they also made valuable contributions to STEM in the process.