When we think of tech pioneers, names like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Tim Berners-Lee come to mind more readily than Jean Sammet or Radia Perlman. These women and many others have made significant contributions to the world of technology, and without them we may not be where we are today. In honor of International Women’s Day, we’d like to share with you some extraordinary woman who shaped the way technology has developed.
Ada Lovelace (1815–1852)—“Inventor” of Algorithms
The daughter of famous poet Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace was also a writer, but is more known for working with Charles Babbage on his Analytical Engine, a kind of prototypical computer. In the 1840s, she wrote the first algorithm for this machine, realizing that it could do more than just straightforward calculation. This has earned her the title of the first computer programmer, after a fashion.
Jean Sammet (1928–2017)—Pioneer Programmer
Jean Sammet was an inventor of languages. In 1962, she developed the FORMAC language for programming and also worked with five other programmers, including Grace Hopper, to design and write the COBOL programming language, which became the official language of the U.S. Department of Defense computer operations.
Evelyn Boyd Granville (b. 1924) and Katherine Johnson (b. 1918)—Mathematicians to the Stars
Evelyn Boyd Granville was the second African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics—from Yale University, in 1949. She used her brain power and skills in mathematics to do calculations for the Apollo space program.
Katherine Johnson was a human computer (that’s what the women who worked out the complicated equations for the NASA flight missions were called—computers), calculating trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo missions in the 1950s and ‘60s. She crunched the numbers for Alan Shepard, the first American in space in 1961, as well as for John Glenn’s first launch. In fact, Glenn refused to use the numbers calculated by early IBM (electronic) computers unless Ms. Johnson had verified them first. Her reputation for accuracy also helped establish the usefulness of the nascent technology. How’s that for star power?
Lynn Conway (b. 1938)—Yes, All Women
Lynn Conway was a programmer who worked with various technology companies over the course of her multi-decade career. After deciding to transition from male to female in 1968, she encountered discrimination and was forced to essentially reboot her career. In spite of this, she achieved many advances in microelectronics in the ‘70s and ‘80s and also developed the generalized dynamic instruction handling—still used by modern computer processors to enhance speed and performance.
Radia Perlman (b. 1951)—Inventor of the Internet
Though she has insisted that the Internet was not invented by one person, Radia Perlman did develop the spanning-tree protocol (STP) in 1984. This algorithm prevents loops from occurring between networked devices, which laid the foundation for the modern Internet. Without the STP, our “series of tubes” never would have become what it is today.
Susan Kare (b. 1954)—The Mother of Modern UI
Susan Kare was a member of the original Macintosh team at Apple, starting at the company in 1982. Even though, by her own admission, she wasn’t really a computer person, she created many of the graphical pieces of the first Macintosh OS, including fonts and icons, that paved the way for Apple’s pioneering graphic UI. Probably her most famous contributions are the Chicago typeface, used as the default system font for the Mac OS from 1984 to 1999, plus the “Happy Mac” icon and the Command key symbol (⌘) unique to Apple keyboards.
These are just a few of the remarkable women who contributed to the world of technology. Take a look at some of our other articles or view our timeline of “Women’s Contributions to Tech” to learn how women around the world are influencing tech.