Five Women who Revolutionised the World of Technology
March 8th signifies the annual celebration of International Women’s Day, a date that initially marked the gaining of women’s suffrage in Soviet Russia, but that quickly globalised to commemorate womanhood and the recognition of equal rights between genders. And how better to celebrate women than to unearth but a few of the heros that pioneered some of the most significant technological achievements in history.
The world of science and technology has a regrettable history of oppressing female thought and obstructing their progression within the field of work. Whilst we can all rejoice in that this is no longer the case, it does make what women managed to achieve despite the world’s impediment all the more extraordinary; and what women have contributed today even more empowering.
With that, we invite you to journey through the years as we look at just five out of an extensive list of women who have shaped our technological world as we know it.
1. Hedy Lamarr
Although she earned her living through an acting career, Lamarr experimented with a number of inventions in her spare time, including a modified traffic stop light that amended faults within the current system and a tablet that would make flat water carbonated. Most revolutionary was her idea of frequency hopping, which was later developed with George Antheil and used by the military to protect intelligent communications.
Frequency hopping was initially designed for the Navy to remotely control torpedos, who rejected the technology. It was only later that it was used after a revival by a team of engineers and quickly became implemented into the military. It works by changing the transmitter frequency when sending radio signals to ensure any interference would be countered and the content would be secure, thus rendering it the earliest form of encryption. Her idea leads to modern technologies that we all use every day, including Code Division Multiple Access, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
2. Ada Lovelace
Perhaps the most influential in the world of computing and coined the first ever computer programmer is Ada Lovelace. She is best known for her work on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, the world’s first general-purpose computer. Lovelace recognised its capabilities were far beyond that which Babbage had proposed and published an algorithm for the computer before it had even been invented.
This 19th-century aristocrat began with a French document authored by Luigi Menabrea, adding an abundance of notes, highlighting errors within its processes and providing what would later be hailed as the first computer algorithm. In doing so she gave the machine function that surpassed the simple counting of Bernoulli numbers that Babbage had initially designed it for.
3. Radia Perlman
Pearlman is the lady to thank for the spanning-tree protocol (STP), the technology that allows us to build large networks using Ethernet and transfer data between them. The algorithm behind the STP enabled file sharing between computers and large connections within our homes possible. Presently she is working to further improve her STP solution with a technology she calls TRILL – Transparent Interconnection of Lots of Links.
Prior to this significant contribution to the infrastructure of the internet, Perlman designed a programming language to teach to young children, pairing it with special input devices to make it easier to understand. She named the technology the Toddler’s Own Recursive Turtle Interpreter System or TORTIS for short. Her work in making computer technology more accessible to children went on to have her celebrated as a pioneer for engaging young people in computer programming.
4. Barbara Liskov
Liskov broke the gender barrier in the world of technology in 1968, becoming one of the first women within the United States to earn a Ph.D. in the field of computer science.
From there, she went on to boast multiple achievements including the invention of CLU, a programming language which features led to the development of object-oriented programming (OOP); widely used in the present day. Building on CLU, Liskov also went on to create Argus, the first of its kind in supporting the implementation of distributed programs, as well as Thor, an object-oriented database system.
Crucially, her work in object-oriented programming laid the foundation for many of the OOP-based languages and operating systems that we use today, including Java, Mac OS X and Visual Basic.Net. Liskov has gone on to win multiple awards, and her research continues to this day at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
5. Betty Holberton
Holberton led a team of six programmers to invent breakpoints within computer debugging. She was hired to work on ENIAC, the first general purpose digital computer, with six other women within the secret WW2 project as the labour was regarded as simplistic and therefore best suited to women.
Despite no prior knowledge of computing, and no books or guides to assist them, Holberton and the six women learned how to program and modified the machine to run a ballistics trajectory within seconds. The achievement quite rightly earned them a position within the Women of Technology International Hall of Fame.
After the war, Holberton was employed as Chief of the Programming Research Branch at the David Taylor Model Basin, and was part of the team that created the first ever generative programming system. She is also responsible for the development of BINAC, which is understood today to be the prototype of all modern programming languages.
We’ve still got a long way to go to create a more gender-balanced world, and we’re trying to do our part to resolve the bias within the technology industry.