One of the driving forces of Tech Week is showcasing and encouraging women in tech. Only 20% of people working in IT are women—but the number is growing all the time as initiatives like Scratch and Girls Hackathon take off. In honour of that, we’ve taken a look at the ten most extraordinary women in tech history.
P.S. this list is in no particular order.
Dr. Ellen Ochoa
Dr. Ochoa is a former astronaut, the current Director of the Johnson Space Centre, and a pioneer of spacecraft technology.
In her career as an astronaut, Dr. Ochoa logged nearly 1000 hours in space, which earned her the US Distinguished Service Medal, Exceptional Service Medal, Outstanding Leadership, and four NASA Space Flight Medals. She was also the first Hispanic woman in space. If all that wasn’t enough, she’s a true pioneer in spacecraft tech, having designed optical systems for Sandia National Laboratory. She also developed a computer system designed for aeronautical expeditions at NASA’s Ames Research Centre.
Yeah, she’s impressive.
If you know your films from the golden era, chances are you’ve heard of Hedy Lamarr for her roles opposite the likes of Clark Gable. Not content to languish in Hollywood, Lamarr grew bored of the whole scene and moved towards science experiments.
In between her film career and in the midst of World War II, Lamarr and composer George Antheil presented the US Navy with technology for spread spectrum and frequency hopping that was designed to guide torpedoes. The tech quickly became important to the US military, and has since been incorporated into Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and CDMA (a type of radio tech).
Sister Mary Kenneth Keller
While you might try and argue that Whoopi Goldberg was the coolest nun (fake or otherwise!) of all time in Sister Act, you’d be wrong.
Sister Mary Kenneth Keller was an absolute boss and visionary: she was the first woman to be awarded a Ph.D in computer science and assisted with the development of BASIC computer language at Dartmouth. Before Sister Mary, Dartmouth was considered a ‘man only’ place of study and work.
To round off her achievements, Sister Mary founded and directed the computer science department at Clarke College for twenty years.
With a moniker like Mother of the Internet, it’s no surprise that Perlman makes our list. A software designer and network engineer by trade, Perlman’s most famous invention is the spanning-tree protocol.
While that might sound like something a lumberjack would use, the spanning-tree protocol is a network protocol that ensures a loop-free topology for any bridged Ethernet local area network. Ye wha? Essentially, it was a system for network connectivity—which is why she’s sometimes called the Mother of the Internet, a title she really doesn’t like!
Apart from her mad internet/network skills, Perlman has been a pioneer in teaching programming to kids and she developed TORTIS (what do you get if you cross a TARDIS with a tortoise? Sorry.) a version of the educational robotics language. At the minute, Perlman works at Intel, holds more than 50 patents, and is the author of textbooks about networking and network security.
Shaw is considered the first female video game designer. Originally cutting her teeth at Atari, Shaw joined Activision where she programmed the classic scrolling shooter, River Raid. She’s also responsible for 3-D Tic Tac Toe, Super Breakout, and Happy Trails.
Henrietta Swan Leavitt
We’re going back a bit in history with Leavitt. After graduating college, Leavitt worked at the Harvard College Observatory as a ‘computer’—a person who performed maths calculations before we had computers to do them for us. This was 1893, so it’d be a while before computers were widely available. Anyway, while trailblazing at Harvard, Leavitt discovered the relationship between the luminosity and the period of Cepheid variable stars. This very wordy discovery was hugely influential and led to Edwin Hubble’s discovery that the universe is expanding—what we call Hubble’s Law.
Leavitt got very little recognition during her life and while this list doesn’t quite make up for it, we like to think she’ll be remembered for years to come.
Beatrice Helen Worsley
Worsley was Canada’s Female Computer Pioneer, was influential to computer science, and was the first female computer scientist in Canada. Before her death at 51, Worsley published around 17 papers in professional journals and numerous articles.
Katherine Johnson is a seriously influential physicist, space scientist, and mathematician who contributed to America’s aeronautics and space program with the early application of electronic computers at NASA. Which is mad impressive. She also calculated the trajectory for Project Mercury and the Apollo 11 flight to the moon.
In 1970, she worked on Apollo 13’s mission to the moon. The mission was aborted and Johnson’s work on backup procedures and charts helped the crew safely return to earth.
Johnson is now 96 and spends her time chilling in Virginia with her family. No one has ever made a film about her life. Someone should.
Grace Murray Hopper
Grace Murray Hopper was responsible for developing the 1st compiler for a computer programming language. She was a US Navy Rear Admiral, and in 1973 she became the first person from the USA and the first woman to ever to be made a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society. She’s also an IEEE Fellow, and the winner of the Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award 1964.
In brief: she was one impressive person!
What list would be complete without the inventor of programming herself? The only child of renowned poet Lord Byron, Lovelace’s start in programming was in a study of Charles Babbage’s mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine.
Included in her study was the first algorithm intended to be carried out by a machine—which is why she wears the crown of the first computer programmer. While Babbage’s focus was on the computer’s capabilities for number-crunching, Lovelace took the approach of ‘poetical science’ and asked questions about how people and society relate to technology as a collaborative tool.
Little did she realise her thoughts would become the future, right? You're probably reading this on a phone or your laptop--which means Ada was spot-on, all the way back in the 1800s.
Inspired by women in tech? Why not take part in Ireland’s dedicated festival of technology, Tech Week, from the 26th of April to the 2nd of May? Brilliant women like Eimear Noone, Niamh Bushnell, and 10-year-old EU Digital Girl Lauren Boyle will be giving speeches or workshops.