The Trailblazing Women In Tech That History Overlooked
It's time we made them stars.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The Academy Award-nominated film, Hidden Figures (2016), tells the story of three women—Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan—whose work at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) successfully sent astronauts to outer space. But until the biographical drama hit theaters, the general public would have been hard-pressed to find their names in the average history textbook.
That their story has been overlooked all these years is far from unique. Since the 1800s, women—trans women and women of color, in particular—have been fighting discrimination, sexism, and racism to earn their rightful places in history as bleeding-edge pioneers in technology and sciences. In spite of this, trailblazers have made advancements in these fields since the enterprises were first explored.
Here at NEW INC, International Women’s Day means remembering the countless innovators who contributed to building the world of tech that we know today—often without recognition. It’s time we learned who they are, and we think the names below are a good place to start.
1. Ada Lovelace (born 1815)
Ada Lovelace. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
A mathematician and writer whose work on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine led to recognition of her being the first computer scientist, Lovelace was the first to envision the computer as something other than a computational machine and wrote the first algorithm for that envisioned machine. Much of her work was shaped by what she called “poetical science” — using poetry to question and develop mathematical theories. Dying in 1852 of uterine cancer, Lovelace has been recognized internationally for her work, including Ada Lovelace Day, Ada College, and the Lovelace Medal.
2. Grace Hopper (born 1906)
Grace Hopper. Courtesy Pixabay Creative Commons.
As one of the earliest computer programmers, who worked on Harvard’s Mark 1 computer and was instrumental in several key developments for computer programming languages, Hopper was the first to write a compiler for a computer composed of words instead of numbers; her ideas were rejected for several years before being considered. In 1949, she led a team that developed COBOL, which was a continuation of her early compiler. In 1967, Hopper served as the director for the Navy Programming Languages Group and was promoted to Captain in 1973. She is recognized internationally for her work, and was posthumously awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
3. Dr. Erna Schneider Hoover (born 1926)
A mathematician and computer scientist known for her work at Bell Labs, Hoover pioneered a computerized telephone switching method known as stored program control, allowing for the development of modern communication. Having come up with the idea in the hospital giving birth to her second daughter, lawyers had to visit her at home during maternity leave to sign papers for one of the first software patents ever issued. As the first woman technician at Bell Labs, she worked on projects regarding artificial intelligence, large databases, and switching methods. In 2008, Hoover was inducted to the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
4. Annie Easley (born 1933)
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
A rocket scientist and mathematician who worked on numerous space missions, Easley became one of the first black computer scientists to work at NASA. Born in the Jim Crow South, Easley worked for some time to help voters in Alabama pass the oppressive literacy tests required for African-Americans to vote. Upon moving to Cleveland, she discovered NASA’s computer positions, and was hired as a mathematician and computer engineer. Throughout her career she worked on software and code analyzing alternative energy sources; her work is the foundation for modern space launches. She was a leading member on the team that developed Centaur technology: its derivatives are still in use today. In 2001, Easley was interviewed by Sandra Johnson as part of a NASA Oral History project. Read her thoughts on the Civil Rights Movement, NASA, and women in technology.
5. Lynn Conway (born 1938)
Lynn Conway is a computer scientist, inventor, and transgender activist best known for her work in computational design. While working at IBM, Conway began her gender transition and was soon fired for announcing her intention to transition. Upon transitioning, Conway returned to work at a variety of companies, eventually publishing Introduction to VLSI Systems, which is currently used at over one hundred universities and is considered revolutionary for computer chip design. She also made numerous design contributions to the field of chip and design tools. Upon learning that her firing at IBM for transitioning might be made public, Conway began to publicly tell her transition story and worked in transgender activism, creating support, resources, and medical networks for people looking to transition. In 2014, Conway was named one of TIME Magazine's “21 Transgender People Who Influenced American Culture.”
6. Navajo Women (1965-1975)
From 1965 to 1975, a Fairchild manufacturing plant operated in Shiprock, New Mexico, the home of a Navajo reservation. As documented by professor Lisa Nakamura, the plant employed hundreds of young, Navajo women to build computer chips for everything from calculators to missile guidance systems. Employed because they were considered a source of cheap and replenishable labor, these women produced chips that made most early technology functional. This narrative is written out of most Silicon Valley; before Nakamura’s book, little attention was given to these women pioneers whose work allowed for a modern tech industry to flourish. An early precursor to now outsourced manufacturing plants for tech giants, the story of the Fairchild manufacturing plant is a reminder of the immeasurable labor of women of color to propel digital and technological revolutions forward.
7. Radia Perlman (born 1951)
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Radia Perlman is the software designer and engineer responsible for some of the most fundamental technologies we have today. Her invention of the spanning tree protocol allowed for Ethernet to cover vast distances, opposed to limited to a few local nodes, and is what makes the Internet possible. She’s recognized for some of the earliest efforts to teach programming to young children, and is responsible for other network designs to correct for errors in her original protocol. She holds over one hundred issued patents.
Editor: Rain Embuscado