With International Women’s Day around the corner, I’ve been looking into the history of women in science and technology. When it comes to computing, Ada Lovelace is often celebrated as a pioneer, but as she is celebrated each year on Ada Lovelace Day we thought it might be a good idea to recognise some other female STEM pioneers. The following examples are of women who have achieved fame in science/technology, as well as at least one other discipline:
- Grace Hopper: Nicknamed ‘Amazing Grace’, Hopper was both a computer scientist and Rear Admiral with the US Navy. She was employed as a programmer on the Harvard Mark I, an electromechanical computer that saw use in the latter stages of WWII and later helped develop the idea that programming languages based on English words could be written. She also developed standards for testing computer systems and components, which gave rise to the National Institute of Standards and Technology. When she retired from the US Navy with the rank of Rear Admiral she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer still serving. She was the fifth oldest active-duty to ever serve.
- Mary Kenneth Keller: The first woman to earn a PhD in computer science in the United States, Keller was also a nun with the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The combination of computer scientist and nun is – in all likelihood – not a common one, but this didn’t seem to daunt Mary Keller. She was a pioneer calling for the involvement of women in computing and greater use of computers for education.
- Ruth Benerito: Primarily known for her work on developing wrinkle-free cotton and helping the US cotton industry recover after WWII, Benerito also developed a system of fat emulsion during the Korean War which allowed seriously wounded soldiers (and others) to be fed intravenously.
- Nichelle Nichols: Better known as Uhura from Star Trek, Nichols was also a passionate advocate for minority and female personnel in space exploration. Her involvement in NASA recruitment work saw several recruits join the Agency. Among them were Dr Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut and Guion Bluford, the first African American in space.
- Hedy Lamarr: Perhaps as unusual as the combination of computer scientist and nun, Hedy Lamarr forged successful careers as both a Hollywood actress and inventor of a radio guidance system for torpedoes which would later contribute to the development of GPS, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. A self-taught inventor, Lamarr co-developed the technology with another unlikely inventor, the avant-garde composer George Antheil.
To achieve fame in one discipline is hard enough, but to become known in two is remarkable. On this, International Women’s Day, we’d like to raise a glass to those female pioneers of the science and technology worlds!