We’ve all heard the stories about how women used to be the majority of the computing workforce in America. Some of us have even seen hidden figures, where Dorothy Vaughan took over managing “the IBM” at NASA. But how many of us really know about Ada Lovelace, or Jean Bartik, or Grace Hopper? So let’s talk a little bit about some of the women who shaped the industry. Other articles I pulled from will be down at the bottom.
Ada Lovelace: Ada Lovelace was a women in the 19th century, the child of Lord Byron, who had a long history of working with Charles Babbage. (Does anybody else remember Babbage Computer Stores?) She was the first person to write an algorithm to be used on Babbage’s theoretical “Analytical Engine”. As such, she became the first “programmer” in the world, even though she was programming a theoretical machine. She was a serious math baller in a time when not many women were ballers of much more than balls.
Bletchly Girls: The Bletchly Park girls worked during World War II at code breaking, a very important task during the war. They made up roughly 75% of the workforce there during WWII, and were recruited by answering a cryptic crossword in the Times.
Hedy Lamarr: Hedy, originally an actress, helped design a radio guidance system during WWII. The technology developed, worked on with composer George Antheil, used spread spectrum and frequency hopping technology, basically switching the signal among many different channels. While the technology was not implemented during WWII, the Navy did begin to use it in the 60s, and it’s an important element to WiFi and Bluetooth technologies of today.
Jean Bartik: Jean was one of the original programmers on the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) computer. She worked on hand calculations of ballistics trajectories during WWII, and then worked with four other women to automate those processes. “They developed subroutines, nesting, and other fundamental programming techniques, and arguably invented the discipline of programming digital computers” (Wikipedia).
Grace Hopper: Grace is probably one of my favorite women on this list, because she kicked some serious butt. First, she helped popularize the term “computer bug”, which I love, but her team helped create the first compiler language. This language allowed for the creation of COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language). COBOL is a language still used today – despite the fact that many people have never heard of it. It’s most popular lately for being the big problem in the Y2K bug for only have two digits allowed for year. She was so good at her job that she was recalled by the Navy when she was 60, to pioneer more computer work, notably the standardization of communication technologies across computer languages. She worked until she was 79.
Women: The women in the 50s and 60s were responsible for almost all of the jobs in computing at the time. According to the Department of Labor in 1956, companies increasingly employed a “hire only women” strategy. In 1967, Cosmopolitan magazine declared it was the “age of the Computer girl”. Software in general during this time was considered women’s work, because it was considered more clerical than the more difficult hardware role. As a result, women thrived in the role of computing.
Jean E Sammet: Jean was one of the developers of the COBOL language, and she also developed another language called FORMAC – the first widely used general language and system for manipulating nonnumeric algebraic expressions. She worked for IBM in the early 60s, after already having garnered a lot of previous experience and accolades in technology. She wrote the first book on Programming, entitled Programming Languages: History and Fundamentals. She was also known for her insistence that assembly language is not a programming language. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from Mount Holyoke in 1978 for her work in computer science.
Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson: These women have an entire movie dedicated to them, so my summation will be brief. All three women were human computers (literally people who did computing) who pushed the envelope and excelled in Technology at NASA. Dorothy became the person running the IBM at NASA because of her knowledge of FORTRAN, Mary became the first female engineer, and Katherine worked on several space missions.
Margaret Hamilton: Margaret was a spaceship programmer. She first worked as a developer at MIT in 1961, writing code for the first portable computer. Later on in the 60s, she became responsible for writing the code of the Apollo onboard flight software. She was one of the most important hole punchers (because that’s how programming was done back then) in the history of spaceflight.
Carla Meninsky and Carol Shaw: Carla and Carol were video game designers for the Atari 2600 console systems. They both designed games I’ve never heard of, 3D-Tic-Tac-Toe and River Raid among them, but I’m sure they were awesome. While neither of them work in programming any longer, it’s pretty neat how they were able to fluidly move from animation jobs (Carla), into programming jobs in a classic start-up scenario.
Sadly, the 80s marked the beginning of the decline of women in the technical field. Programming was no longer considered “clerical”, and became more highly coveted by men. Women slowly shifted out of this technical field, and into other arenas.
Of course, women have remained active and relevant in the IT field; this Wikipedia list proves it. But the foundational successes, and the control women once held in the field has been eroded. We used to rule the technological world! One day soon, we can again.
The History of Women in Tech is Longer and Cooler Than You Know
How Women Once Ruled Computing
A Brief History of Women in Computing
How the Tech Industry Wrote Women Out of History