The Often Forgotten Women in Tech
In honour of South Africa’s National Woman’s Day, we are reminded of the extraordinary women who came before us who helped shape the world of tech as we currently know it. Like the rest of the world, South recognise the United Nations International Women’s Day on 8 March every year. However, South Africans also celebrate the 9th of August as National Woman’s Day in order to honour the female struggle heroes who were integral to the liberation of South Africa.
For decades, the STEM fields have been unwelcoming to women, unfairly (albeit sometimes unconsciously) omitting their seat at the tech table with glaring wage gaps, gender discrimination and biases, sexual harassment, and limited opportunities. Throughout history, a number of women have impacted the developed of a lot of technology that we use today, but often their names have been left off the pages of the history books.
Here we present a list of the often forgotten women in the history of technology; in no particular order:
Firstly, let’s talk about Ada Lovelace, who is considered the first computer programmer and a visionary for what programming and computers could eventually become. She has a technology award named after her, and a holiday devoted to celebrating her legacy.
Sister Mary Kenneth Keller
Sister Mary Kenneth Keller was the first woman to be awarded a Ph.D. in computer science and assisted with the development of BASIC computer language at Dartmouth. Before Sister Mary, Dartmouth was considered a ‘man only’ place of study and work.
Heddy Lamarr is most well-known for being an actress during the golden era of Hollywood for her roles opposite the likes of Clark Gable. However, many people may not know that when she grew bored of Hollywood life Lamarr became interested in science and technology. In between her film career, which coincided with World War II, Lamarr and composer George Antheil developed technology for spread spectrum and frequency hopping which was used by the US Navy to guide their torpedoes. This technology has since been incorporated into Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and CDMA radio technology.
The computer scientist and the United States Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper worked on the first computer Harvard Mark 1 and she pioneered the invention of the first compiler which contributed to the development of COBOL, one of the first high-level programming languages. Decades later, COBOL is still used in business, finance and administrative systems. Known as the “mother of computer” Hopper is also credited with helping to popularize the term “debugging” after she fixed a computer glitch by removing a moth from a relay!
If you love retro video games, thank Carol Shaw, who could have been behind some of your most cherished graphics. Shaw is considered the first female video game designer and programmer, who originally started at Atari and when later joined Activision where she programmed the classic 1982 game River Raid. She also contributed to other games such as 3-D Tic Tac Toe, Super Breakout, and Happy Trails. Her legacy has left an astounding mark on the video game industry.
Some of you may have seen the Hollywood blockbuster Hidden Figures, which tells the story of Katherina Johnson, one of the NASA “human computers” responsible for successfully plotting the flight paths of America’s first space explorations. Throughout her life, Johnson worked as an influential physicist, space scientist, and mathematician who greatly contributed to the development of NASA’s space program and the early application and use of electronic computers at NASA.
Renowned mathematician and computer science pioneer, Margaret Hamilton, is credited with having coined the term “software engineering” while developing the guidance and navigation system for the Apollo spacecraft as head of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory. Hamilton is recognisable due to the iconic image of her standing next to a shoulder height stack of the Apollo guidance software that she and her team developed at MIT. Throughout her life, Hamilton has published more than 130 papers, proceedings, and reports about sixty projects and six major programs.
This small list does not even start to address the number of women throughout history and throughout the world who have greatly impacted technology as we know it today. So take today to think about these women and help encourage more women to get involved in technology.