To celebrate our upcoming Women in Tech Scotland, Women of Silicon Valley, and Women of Silicon Roundabout conferences, we’re delving into the work and lives of 7 incredible women who made history with their contributions to the world of technology.
Ada Lovelace (10th December 1815 – 27th November 1852)
Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, is widely considered to be the first computer programmer. As the daughter of famed Romantic poet Lord Byron, Lovelace’s mother was scared that she would inherit her father’s erratic ‘poetic’ personality, so raised her on science, logic, and mathematics – what we would now call STEM subjects.
Lovelace was fascinated by machines, designing boats and flying machines as a young child. Later, her talents led her to form a working relationship with fellow British mathematician Charles Babbage, aka ‘The Father of Computers’. Babbage described Lovelace as having grasped the Sciences “with a force which few masculine intellects could have exerted over it.” Her educational and social exploits also brought her into contact with scientists such as Andrew Crosse, Charles Wheatstone, Michael Faraday and Sir David Brewster.
Babbage was making plans for a device he called The Analytical Engine that had all the crucial elements of a modern computer. In 1842, Lovelace translated an article describing the machine. Babbage asked her to expand the article and the final draft was over three times the length of the original and contained several early computer programs. Lovelace died of cancer at 36, only a few years after the publication of Sketch of The Analytical Engine, with Notes from the Translator.
Admiral Grace Murray Hopper (9th December 1906 – 1st January 1992)
Admiral Grace Murray Hopper was a “mathematician, computer scientist, social scientist, corporate politician, marketing whiz, systems designer, and programmer,” according to computer pioneer Howard Bromberg. One of the first three modern programmers, Hopper is best known for her contributions to the development of computer languages.
Hopper graduated from Vassar College with a BS in Mathematics and Physics in 1928, a MS in Mathematics in 1930 from Yale University and a PhD in Mathematics also from Yale in 1934. Coming from a military family, Hopper naturally joined the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service) in 1943. This led her to begin programming the Harvard Mark II, an electromechanical computer financed by the United States Navy, alongside Howard H. Aiken. In 1953, she invented the compiler, the intermediate program that translates English language instructions into the language of the target computer.
When Hopper retired at the age of 79 from the U.S. navy, she was the oldest serving officer.
Sister Mary Kenneth Keller (17th December 1913 – 10th January 1985)
Sister Mary Kenneth Keller was the first woman in the United States to earn a PhD in Computer Science and later went on to develop the BASIC programming language (Beginners All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code). BASIC was a popular add-on when IBM brought out its first “family” computer. It is still frequently used in teaching the introductory concepts of programming due to its simplicity.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Keller took her vows to become a nun among the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1940. She then completed a BS in Mathematics and a MS in Mathematics and Physics from DePaul University, Chicago. During the early 1960s, she studied at the universities of Wisconsin, Purdue, and Michigan, graduating with a PhD in 1965.
Keller’s work transformed the world of computing and she later went on to establish the computer science department at Clarke College, a Catholic college for women, which she then chaired for 20 years, championing the future careers of young women working in STEM. Keller was noted for her support of working mothers and even encouraged them to bring their children to class with them.
Joan Clarke (24th June 1917 – 4th September 1996)
In 1936, Joan Clarke began her Mathematical studies at Newnham College, Cambridge, later graduating with a double first. Clarke was recruited to aid in the decoding operations that were being carried out at Bletchley Park during World War Two. The Germans had developed an Enigma Machine to encrypt their messages and Clarke worked alongside Alan Turing, the creator of modern computing, and a team of intellectuals in order to crack the code.
The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, was a popular 2014 film that focused on Clarke’s role within the team at Bletchley Park. Their aim was to break the complex Naval Enigma as German U-boats were inflicting heavy losses on the Allies. Several successes were made, but at each point the German forces ramped up their security. In February 1942, for instance, a fourth wheel was introduced to the Naval Enigma Machines (multiplying the number of settings 26 times); this became known as codename Shark. By December 1942, Shark was broken by Clarke and her team.
Clarke’s mathematical expertise helped shorten the war and, as a result, saved thousands of lives. She was rewarded in 1946 with an MBE.
Katherine G. Johnson (26th August 1918 – Present)
Katherine G. Johnson was a physicist and mathematician who worked at NASA calculating trajectories, launch windows, and return paths for their space flights. Johnson, and two other African-American female scientists (Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson) were the focus of the hit 2016 film Hidden Figures, which delved into the discrimination they faced working at the aerospace research agency during the 1950s and ‘60s.
Johnson graduated with a BS in Mathematics and French from West Virginia State College and later took one of the open positions at the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACAs) – later NASA – climbing her way up the ranks swiftly due to her impressive aptitude for mathematics. During her 35-year career at NASA, Johnson aided with Project Mercury (the first man to fly into space), Apollo 11 (the first flight to the moon) and the Space Shuttle program (plans for a mission to Mars).
In 2015, Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States, by President Barack Obama. She celebrated her 100th birthday in August this year.
Jean E. Sammet (23rd March 1928 – 20th May 2017)
Jean E. Sammet graduated with a BA in Mathematics from Mount Holyoke College in 1948 and an MA in Mathematics from The University of Illinois a year later. In 1961, she joined IBM and managed the Boston Programming Center in the IBM Data Systems Division, initiating the development of the original FORMAC (FORmula MAnipulation Compiler). This was the first widely used general language for symbolic mathematics. She was also one of the developers of the influential COBOL programming language and, although it is now more than half a century old, billions of lines of this code still run on the mainframe computers that support the work of multitudes of corporations worldwide.
From 1974 until 1976 she became the first female president of ACM (Association for Computing Machinery). Sammet’s contribution was so important that she received an IBM Outstanding Contribution Award. Further honours received by the computing pioneer include the ACM Distinguished Service Award (1985) and the Augusta Ada Lovelace Award from the Association for Women in Computing (1989).
Dame Stephanie Shirley (16th September 1933 – Present)
From humble beginnings as a child refugee who arrived in Britain unaccompanied by her parents, Dame Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley forged a prosperous career in technology and is now a multi-millionaire philanthropist.
Shirley decided not to go to university as, in her own words, botany was the “only science then available to my gender”, but later took evening classes for six years to obtain a degree in Mathematics. In 1962, Shirley founded her own software company, F. I. Group PLC. In the male-dominated tech sector, she found it beneficial to go by the name ‘Steve’. Shirley also ensured that a large number of female employees worked for her business.
Since 1993, she has given away at least £65 million of her estimated £150 million net worth that she gained after selling her firm. Autism research is a cause close to her heart as her late son Giles suffered from the disorder. Shirley was made a Dame in the 2000 New Year’s Honours list for services to information technology and appointed a Fellow of the Computer History Museum in 2018.