The Great Women of Computer Science

Keypunch operators at IBM in Stockholm in the 1930s.

Ever since I started to become interested in software engineering I realized how underrepresented women are in this field, the gender gap is way bigger than one might think. According to a software developer survey in 2020, female developers amounted to only about 25% of the respondents in the U.S. and globally that number drops to only about 8%, making this industry heavily male dominated. I am a strong believer(and data also proves) that having role models and feeling represented in a certain field can play a big role when it comes to deciding what we should do as a career. With all that in mind I decided to shine a light on a few of the many women that were important to computer science throughout history, their life stories and accomplishments.

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Ada Lovelace

Widely considered the founder of computing science and the world’s first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace (1815–1852) was a Victorian mathematician and the daughter of British poet Lord Byron.

Lady Byron, fearing that her daughter would develop a passion for poetry and the bohemian libertine life style lived by her father, made sure Ada was tutored almost exclusively in logic, science and mathematics, even though such challenging topics weren’t considered suitable for ladies at the time. It all turned out well as Ada excelled, especially in math and languages.

At the age of 17 she was introduced to Charles Babbage, a mathematic professor at Cambridge University who today is known as The Father of the Computer. Even though she went on to get married at the age of 20 and have three children, her passion for science never diminished and she continued to correspond with him for the next two decades.

She became mostly known for her contributions to the mechanical general-purpose computer created by Babbage, the Analytical Engine. She was first asked to translate this complex article about the machine, she not only translated it but added some of her own notes which ended up being 3 times longer than the original article. In her notes she proposed the idea that the machine could be used for more than just calculations, that they could be also used to do advanced algorithms, and she included in those notes what many consider to be the first algorithm, to compute Bernoulli numbers using the Analytical Engine. This is the reason she is known as “The First Computer Programmer in the World”.

Lovelace’s diagram from Note G, the first published computer algorithm.

At the age of 36 she died of uterine cancer, it wasn’t until 101 years later that her work was re-published, just as people were finally starting to build the computers she had envisioned a century before. Lovelace called herself an analyst and metaphysician but Babbage liked to call her the Enchantress of Numbers.

Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper (December 9, 1906 — January 1, 1992) was a computer scientist born in New York City on December 9, 1906. She wasn’t just a scientist, Hopper enjoyed a dual career in computer science and naval service that spanned more than four decades and saw her retire as the Navy’s oldest commissioned officer.

Fun fact, Grace didn’t even know what computers were until the Navy assigned her to work on the Mark I, when she first learned to program she was 37 years old, proving that it’s never too late to start.

Ms. Hopper is credited with popularizing the term “debugging” after finding an actual moth stuck in her computer.

The moth was found trapped in the Mark II Aiken Relay Calculator while it was being tested at Harvard University, September 9, 1947, according to Hopper’s naval history page. “The operators affixed the moth to the computer log, with the entry: ‘First actual case of bug being found.’ They put out the word that they had ‘debugged’ the machine,” according to the Navy page. The moth is preserved at the Smithsonian.

Next, Grace Hopper joined the team developing the UNIVAC 1, the second commercial computer developed in the U.S.
That’s when Grace created something she is most known for, the first compiler. For each new program, programmers would have to retype commands, which was time consuming and error prone. Also, programs were so complicated that only those with strong computing backgrounds could write them. When Grace pointed out those issues to her colleagues they dismissed her, so she decided to take matters into her own hands, often saying “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission”. In 1959 she worked on the committee that defined a new computer language, the COBOL(short for “common business-oriented language”), Grace believed that programming languages should be close to english rather than machine code, which was the convention. COBOL went on to be one of the most far-reaching business languages to date.

She first retired from the navy in 1966 at the age of 60, but the Navy recalled her to active duty, because they still had work for her to do. She didn’t really retire until 1986. After her final retirement from the Navy she received many honors and traveled and lectured widely until her death in 1992. She’s buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson(1918–2020) was a West Virginia native and American mathematician. Johnson skipped enough grades to begin high school at age 13, continuing her education until she earned a Ph.D. in mathematics. Johnson worked as a human computer in the early days of space flight, to develop the foundational computations that made a United States space mission possible and performed critical calculations that ensured safe space travel from the 1950s on. She did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s 1961 mission Freedom 7, America’s first human space flight.

When NASA began using electronic computers for their calculations, astronaut John Glenn(the first U.S. astronaut to orbit Earth, completing three orbits in 1962) said that he’d trust the computers only after Johnson personally checked the math.

Johnson worked on calculations for Project Apollo’s Lunar Lander, the Space Shuttle, and the Earth Resources Satellite. In 2015, at the age of 97, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She is portrayed by actress Taraji P. Henson in the 2016 movie Hidden Figures.

Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson in Hidden Figures(2016)

Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr (1914–2000) was an Austrian-American actress during MGM’s “Golden Age” who also left her mark on technology. She is best known as a Hollywood superstar but off-screen, Lamarr was known for her dedication to her other passions: science and inventing. In fact, she created the communication system that would later become the basis for WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth.

Lamarr and her co-inventor, George Antheil, developed the technology originally to help the Navy remotely control torpedoes. The key value of frequency hopping was that the randomized channel switching made it difficult for outside agents to understand what was being communicated. It was, in essence, an early form of encryption technology.

The two received a patent on their idea on August 11, 1942, but despite lobbying and fundraising efforts on their part, the Navy ultimately passed on the technology.

It was reborn, however, in the late 1950s when engineers at Sylvania Electronic Systems Division revived it.
Lamarr’s and Antheil’s invention was not actually used by the military until 1962, when it helped secure communications between ships involved in the Cuban missile crisis. By then, their patent had expired. Patents last only 17 years. Originally designed to defeat the German Nazis, the system became an important step in the development of technology to maintain the security of both military communications and cellular phones.

Sadly, Lamarr and her family have never seen a cent in return for its use during the war or in subsequent modern technologies, and you probably had no idea how this Hollywood star changed the face of technology.

These are the four women I personally picked to write about, but there are many more worth mentioning, such as Margaret Hamilton, Joan Clarke, Edith Clarke, Evelyn Boyd Granville, Radia Perlman, Carol Shaw, Sister Mary Kenneth Keller, Adele Goldberg, “The ENIAC women” and many more that I suggest you learn about if you wanna feel inspired(and if you’re a woman, also represented) by brilliant minds of extraordinary women in computer science.

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