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Women in Computing History

Women in Computing History

Today, people tend to view computer science and IT as being dominated by men. However, women were working in computing since the 1700s, when Nicole-Reine Lepaute calculated the progression of Halley's Comet, and into the 1800s, when Maria Mitchell computed Venus's planetary motion. Women continued to perform mentally and by hand the calculations that machines would eventually replace. In fact, women working to perform computations were known as computers long before the machines we call "computers" today. During the 20th century, women began working as programmers. The work of the Harvard Computers, the code-breaking done at Bletchley Park, and the computer engineering done at NASA during the 1960s space race was all mostly done by women.

The modern software that women did so much to develop led to a decrease in the number of women in the field. There was no longer any need for human computers, and as working with these powerful machines became more prestigious, programming began to be dominated by men. However, many women continued to make important contributions to the field and held senior leadership positions at some of the most groundbreaking companies of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, including eBay, Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo!, and Google.

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace was born to the poet Lord Byron and his wife Anne in 1815. Her parents separated soon after her birth, and her mother's worry that her daughter had inherited Byron's mental instability led her to encourage her daughter's education and interest in mathematics and logic. Lovelace's elevated social standing (in 1838, she married the future Earl of Lovelace) gave her the opportunity to meet influential scientists such as Charles Babbage and Michael Faraday, and these contacts helped her further her own scientific knowledge. Lovelace's work translating an article by Luigi Menabrea, an Italian engineer, contains notes that are vital in the history of computers: She worked out what historians and computer scientists consider to be the first algorithm meant to be carried out by a machine. Lovelace was also the first person to conceive of the notion that computers would one day be capable of more than just numeric calculations. Also, Lovelace was the first to pose questions about the intersection between humans, society, and technology. She died at age 36 of cancer.

Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper was born Grace Murray in 1906. Eventually, she would rise to the rank of rear admiral in the United States Navy. Hopper is best known for her work as a computer scientist. Before joining the Navy, Hopper obtained a Ph.D. from Yale in mathematics, and she worked as a math professor before being a part of the Harvard Mark I project and the group that created the UNIVAC I computer. After being rejected from joining the Navy during World War II due to her age, she joined the Naval Reserve. Hopper was the first person to believe that it would be possible to develop English-based programming languages, and she developed the first compiler to convert English into code. This led to her work on the creation of computer programming languages like FLOW-MATIC and what would become COBOL.

After Hopper's retirement from the Naval Reserve in 1966, the Navy recalled her to active duty. She retired from the service in 1986 and began consulting for the Digital Equipment Corporation. The Navy eventually named a destroyer for her. Hopper died in 1992.

Anna Winlock

Anna Winlock was born in 1857 and spent 30 years working at the Harvard College Observatory as one of the founding members of a group of women known as the Harvard Computers. During this time, she developed the most comprehensive catalogue to date of the stars around the North and South poles, known during her lifetime as the Cambridge Zone. Winlock also did extensive calculations on asteroids, and her studies on the subject are still remembered today, especially her work calculating the trajectory of the 475 Oclio and 433 Eros asteroids. Although she died in 1904, her contributions to the field of astronomy continue to influence the field today.

Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr is probably best known as a movie star from the 1930s and 1940s. However, Lamarr was also a self-educated scientist who devoted her free time to working on scientific inventions. Some of her early inventions included an attempt to make a tablet that would turn any glass of water into a carbonated beverage (Lamarr never could get the taste right) and improvements to stoplights. One of the few friends she shared her inventions with was Howard Hughes, whom she worked with to improve the design of his airplanes. He gave her access to his teams of engineers and scientists so she could further develop her ideas. As World War II progressed, it came to Lamarr's attention that the then-new radio-controlled torpedoes were vulnerable to being jammed and therefore pushed off course. Lamarr realized that a radio signal that frequency-hopped would be untraceable, so enemies wouldn't be able to jam the signal. She reached out to composer George Antheil for help developing a device for frequency-hopping and patented their machine. Although it wasn't used in World War II, Lamarr's idea is the basis for GPS, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. Lamarr passed away in 2000 at age 85.

Katherine Johnson

Born Katherine Coleman in 1918, Johnson's calculations of orbital mechanics during her career at NASA were instrumental to the agency's ability to launch manned spaceflights. Over the course of 33 years at NASA, Johnson was responsible for complicated manual mathematical calculations as well as the programming of computers capable of performing the calculations she did manually. These calculations included crafting emergency return paths for Mercury spaceflights undertaken by astronauts like Alan Shepard and John Glenn. Later, she plotted the rendezvous paths between the shuttles and Apollo lunar modules during the explorations of the moon. She also manually calculated safe trajectories and launch windows for early spaceflights. Her work was essential to the success of the space shuttle program. Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2015.

Meg Whitman

Meg Whitman's corporate career began at Walt Disney before she moved on to DreamWorks, Hasbro, and Procter & Gamble. In 1998, Whitman accepted the job of president and CEO of eBay. At the time, eBay employed 30 individuals and had annual revenues of $4 million. Under Whitman's leadership, eBay became one of the first successful and viable e-commerce sites. When she left the company in 2008, eBay's annual revenue was up to $8 billion and the company employed 15,000 people. Whitman went on to join the board of Hewlett-Packard; she became CEO in 2011. One of her first actions was to commit the company to remaining in the personal computer market. During her tenure, the company was split into two companies to streamline operations: HP Inc. and Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Whitman would take the reins of HPE, leaving the leadership of HP Inc. in other hands. After leaving HPE in 2018, Whitman became CEO of Quibi, a short-lived video streaming app. Whitman also mounted an unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in California.

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