With computer science being a domain mostly comprised of men, the significant contributions that women have made in the field are oftentimes forgotten. However, female mathematicians and engineers began making a name for themselves in the early days of scientific computing, some even decades before women were granted the right to vote in the U.S. in 1920 with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. The first computer programmer in history, a member of the first group of programmers to write and execute programs on ENIAC, and the holder of one of the first software patents were all females who simply enjoyed mathematics and computer science. Today they’re considered pioneers in the field and role models to women all over the world.
Ada Lovelace was born in 1815 to English Poet Lord Byron and his wife Anne Isabelle Byron. She began studying mathematics at a young age and later developed a friendship and working relationship with Charles Babbage, a fellow mathematician who is credited with inventing the first mechanical computer. Between 1842 and 1843, Lovelace translated an article by Italian military mathematician and future Prime Minister Federico Luigi Menabrea on the Analytical Engine. Lovelace supplemented the text with her own set of intricate notes. These notes contained an algorithm designed to be carried out by a machine, earning her the title as the world’s first computer programmer.
Born in 1906 in New York City, Grace Hopper is credited with teaching computers to “talk.” After earning her PhD in Mathematics from Yale University, Hopper joined the Naval Reserve in 1943 where she spent the next several decades working on the forefront of the development of computer and language programming. She conceptualized the idea that programs should be written in machine-independent language – mainly English as opposed to assembly languages. Hopper, along with a committee of computer experts, defined a new language known as COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language). Hopper’s COBOL programming language is still in use today and is commonly found in business, finance, and administrative programs.
Fun fact: Hopper popularized the term “debugging” (fixing a computer glitch) when a moth became stuck in a Mark II computer at a US Navy lab, causing an impasse in the system.
Kathleen "Kay" McNulty Antonelli was born in 1921 in Ireland and arrived in the United States in 1924 when her family immigrated to Pennsylvania. After earning a degree in mathematics from Chestnut Hill College, she was hired by the Army’s Ballistic Research Lab to perform tedious calculations for tables of firing and bombing trajectories during World War II. These calculations, which were done using a mechanical desk calculator, took over 40 hours of work to be completed. As such, the need for a faster calculation method led the Army to form a team comprised of computer specialists tasked with speeding up the process. As a member of that team, McNulty and her coworkers designed the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), the first electronic general-purpose computer.
Erna Schneider Hoover
Born in 1926 in Irvington, New Jersey, Erna Schneider Hoover was a mathematician who spent over 32 years at Bell Laboratories. Hoover received her PhD in mathematics from Yale University and joined Bell Labs in 1954. She is famous for having invented a computerized telephone switching method, which greatly reduced call centers’ overloading issues and revolutionized electronic communication. Hoover’s invention was awarded one of the first software patents.
Sadly, despite the contribution of these female pioneers to not just computer technologies but to the advancement of women in the workplace as well, the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) sector remains one that is made up of mostly men. Negative societal conditioning starting at an early age is a main culprit for the lack of women in STEM positions, with girls being encouraged to avoid competition and intellectually challenging activities.
Clearly, the above women didn’t get that memo.