A Look Back at Computing’s Most Forward-Thinking Women

A Look Back at Computing's Most Forward-Thinking Women

Computer science may be a male-dominated field today, but there's a long list of influential women who played an important role in the evolution of computing. Here are just 11 of the most innovative women who've made their mark in computing history. Our timeline is ordered by the year of their most major accomplishment or the first of many accomplishments for women in STEM fields.


Mathematician Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, is considered the first computer programmer and founder of scientific computing. In 1843, a Swiss journal asked Ada to translate an article written about Charles Babbage's analytical engine, invented to perform mathematical calculations. In addition to her translation, Ada noted her own thoughts about the engine. Her notes described how codes could be created, enabling the device to read letters and symbols, and a method for the engine to repeat a series of instructions. This process is called looping and is still used by computer programs to this day.1


Hedy Lamarr was an actress during MGM's "Golden Age" in the 1930s and '40s. In 1942, she and composer George Antheil patented an idea for a radio signaling device, or "Secret Communications System," designed to change radio frequencies and keep German Nazis from decoding messages. Their system inspired the development of technology used today to maintain the security of military communications and cell phones. In 1997, Lamarr was honored with the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award and became the first woman to receive the BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award.2


Grace Murray Hopper was a mathematician and professor who joined the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1943 to support World War II efforts. In 1944, she was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University, where she programmed at Mark I computer. After moving into private industry in 1949, Hopper and her team at Remington Rand created the first compiler for computer programming languages in 1952. She helped popularize the idea of machine-independent programming languages, which paved the way for computer scientists to develop COBOL, one of the first widely used programming languages.3

1946: ENIAC PROGRAMMERS: Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli. Jean Jennings Bartik, Frances Snyder Holberton, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Frances Bilas Spence and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum

During World War II, six women programmed the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer (ENIAC), the first electric programmable computer, as part of a secret government project at the University of Pennsylvania. "Project X" was introduced to the public in 1946, and ENIAC became invaluable in calculating artillery firing tables and the development of the hydrogen bomb. In 1997, Antonelli, Bartik, Holberton, Meltzer, Spence and Teitelbaum were inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame.4


Evelyn Boyd Granville, who earned her doctorate in Mathematics in 1949 from Yale University, was the second African American woman to earn a PhD in Mathematics. After joining IBM in 1956, she developed computer programs used for trajectory analysis in the Mercury Project -the first U.S. manned mission in space - and in the Apollo Project, which sent U.S. astronauts to the moon.5


From 1959-61, Jean Sammet was a key member of the subcommittee that developed COBOL. In 1961, she joined IBM and developed FORMAC, the first widely used programming language and system for symbolic mathematics. Later, she led IBM's work on the Ada programming language, named for Ada Lovelace.6


In 1965, Sister Mary Kenneth Keller became the first woman in the United States to earn a PhD in computer science. After finishing her program at the University of Wisconsin, Keller assisted in the development of BASIC computer language at Dartmouth.7


Karen Spärck Jones is considered a founder of information retrieval. In 1972, she introduced her most notable contribution, inverse document frequency (IDF) weighting in information retrieval, which is still used in most search engines today. Jones was also the first woman to receive the Lovelace Medal awarded by the British Computer Society.8

"I think it's very important to get more women into computing. My slogan is: Computing is too important to be left to men."9


Carol Shaw is considered the first female professional video game designer. From 1978-1984, Shaw designed and developed games at Atari, Tandem Computers and Activision for the Atari 2600, including "3-D Tic-Tac-Toe" and "Video Checkers." Her best-known and most successful game, "River Raid," was released in 1982 by Activision.

"When I was in junior high and high school, I was good at math.... Of course, people would say, 'Gee, you're good at math - for a girl.' That was kind of annoying. Why shouldn't girls be good at math?"10


In the 1980s, software designer and network engineer Radia Perlman developed the Spanning-Tree Protocol (STP), an innovation that laid the groundwork for today's Internet. Today, Perlman is a leader in computer science, holding more than 100 issued patents. Her inventions include TRILL (an improvement on STP) and TORTIS, a version of the educational robotics language LOGO that teaches children about computer programming.11

"The kind of diversity that I think really matters isn't skin shade and body shape, but different ways of thinking."12


Anita Borg was a highly respected computer scientist who advocated for equal representation of women in computer science. In 1987, she created Systers, an email list community exclusively for women in computing. She co-founded the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in 1994 and founded the Institute of Women and Technology in 1997 (later renamed the Anita Borg Institute in her honor).

"Women need to assume their rightful place at the table creating the technology of the future."13

Learn more about online STEM programs at SNHU.

SOURCES:Biography, 2 Biography, 3 Biography, 4 Digital Trends, 5 Biography, 6 Computer History Museum ,7,8,11 Maximum PC, 9 BCS, 10 Vintage Computing and Gaming, 12 The Atlantic, 13 Anita Borg Institute


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