The Fantastic Four: Recognizing Some Women Who Shaped The History of Tech
As we come to the end of Women's History Month, Unleashed is taking a moment to celebrate just a few of the innovative women who contributed to the development and advancement of the technologies that we rely on today. These fantastic four have made significant contributions to the world of technology that we rely on every day.
Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)
Ada Lovelace did not have the typical childhood of an18th century aristocrat. Born to famous English poet Lord Byron, Ada grew up as an only child raised by a single mom. Ada’s mother had a love for science and mathematics and encouraged Ada to learn those subjects. As advanced schools at the time denied entry to girls, Ada’s mother hired her the best tutors. Ada’s mother also encouraged her education by isolating her from subjects and people outside of science and math.
When Lovelace was 17, she was introduced to Charles Babbage, who would later drive the development of the first mechanical computer and the analytical engine. Babbage worked closely with Ada to develop the analytical engine. In 1843, she published a paper translating Babbage’s work in the English Journal of Science and Mathematics. The translation included Lovelace's observations and additions, which helped to drive further research on the analytical engine.
Among the observations, she described how codes could be created for the device to handle letters and symbols along with numbers. She also theorized “looping,” which is seen in modern computer programs. Because of these contributions, Ada is known as the first computer programmer and helped create the foundation for computing language we are still building on to today.
Beulah Louise Henry (1887-1973)
Henry started her life in Memphis, Tenn. Even though she was related to President Benjamin Harris and Virginia Gov. Patrick Henry, she was self-taught due to the limited educational opportunities for women. Beulah eventually attended Queens College and Elizabeth College in North Carolina to fine-tune her inventive and inquisitive personality. After receiving several patents, including one for vacuum-sealed ice cream, she moved to New York City in 1924.
While in New York, NYC Beulah worked at a few large companies where she saw a need for copies without carbon fiber paper. In 1932, she invented the Protograph, a machine that could make up to four typewritten copies of documents at a time without carbon paper. This office technology saved a lot of time and allowed for much further advancement. Over the years she earned 49 individual patents and advanced technology in hundreds of ways.
Grace Hopper (1906-1992)
Hooper is one of the best known female technologists in history, known for her work that led to the creation of the business-oriented programming language COBOL. Hopper is known to many as the “Mother of COBOL”, however, her real claim to fame is inventing the English-like data processing language FLOW-MATIC. This language would lead to the development of COBOL, a project that Hopper oversaw as a committee member. As a child, she was naturally inquisitive and would take apart family appliances to see how they worked. Her mother fostered this fascination by teaching her mathematics and later sending Grace to Hartridge, a girls boarding school in New Jersey. Her education eventually led her to Yale University, where she received a doctorate in Mathematics.
In 1943, Hopper joined the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service) and was promoted to lieutenant in just a year. One of her first projects was working on the Automatic Sequence-Controlled Calculator. She wrote a manuscript outlining the fundamental operating principles of computing machines. During her time in the Navy, she also coined the well known and used term “bug” to describe a computer error.
After her time in the Navy, she went back to Yale where she co-developed COBOL, one of the first standardized computer languages and still used today in business, finance, and administrative systems.
Jean Sammet (1928–2017)
Sammet started life in New York City. A child of lawyers, Sammet was instilled with a strong commitment to education. Jean had hoped to go to the Bronx High School of Science but was not able to go as they only accepted male students at that time. However, her love for science and mathematics stuck with her through high school, and she started a mathematics program at Mount Holyoke in 1944. After finishing her BA, she attended the University of Illinois for a Master’s program and that is where she encountered her first computer.
After graduating with her MA, Sammet went through a few teaching positions before shifting to computer programming in 1955. Working with Hooper’s team at Yale, Sammet’s team was tasked with designing the COBOL programming language. While Grace Hopper and Jean Sammet both were vital to the creation of COBOL they did not collaborate or share warm feelings for each other. Sammet never paced up the opportunity to point out that Hopper was not on the team that built COBOL; she was merely the director of the program. After COBOL, Sammet went to work for IBM where she designed the FORMAC, which was a widely used general language and system for manipulating non-numeric algebraic expressions. Sammet transformed our everyday online banking, business services, and IBM.
Setting the Stage
These four and many other unrecognized women’s bold contributions made technology, computer science, and STEM into the force that shapes much of our society today. While women continue to fight for a place in tech, these women laid down the foundation to challenge misleading stereotypes and push for an environment where everyone's contributions are heard and recognized.
As we celebrate women’s accomplishments from the past, present and future, Unleashed thanks all the innovative women changing the tech industry and especially the extraordinary women on our team today.