The web is full of “top X women in tech” lists to tell us everything about these amazing women who’ve managed to become top-tier tech experts, CEOs and successful entrepreneurs in the world of tech today. However, women didn’t just start changing the world of technology recently – they always did so in the past just as much as their masculine counterparts. Our recent past is full of amazing female personalities who devised revolutionary inventions and forever changed human history with their spectacular ideas. Let’s have a look at these true feminine champions of the world of nerds.
Ada Lovelace (1815–1852)
I bet many of you don’t know that the first computer programmer in history was a woman, and that she gifted humanity with this discovery in 1843 — one full century before the invention of the first IBM computer! Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace — simply known as Ada Lovelace – is widely regarded as the “mother of the computer” for her ability to use imagination to “seize points in common, between subjects having no apparent connection.” Although she did not technically create the Analytical Engine (the machine’s father was, indeed, the renowned mathematician Charles Babbage), she had the merit to recognize its applications beyond pure calculation, and devise a language for its operation.
Quoting her own words:
“A new, a vast, and a powerful language is developed for the future use of analysis, in which to wield its truths so that these may become of more speedy and accurate practical application for the purposes of mankind than the means hitherto in our possession have rendered possible.” (To learn more, see Ada Lovelace, Enchantress of Numbers.)
Grace Hopper (1906–1992)
Aptly named “Amazing Grace,” Grace Brewster Murray Hopper was one of those incredible individuals for whom reaching the highest heights in one career isn’t enough. In fact, she was both a brilliant computer programmer who developed the first computer compiler and the first computer programming language, and a Navy Rear Admiral at the same time (the first woman to reach this rank). And she retired twice because, you know, the world still needed her again after her career was (apparently) over!
Other than being amazing on so many levels, Rear Admiral Dr. Hopper created the first software that that translates arithmetic into language, and was the architect of COBOL, the major language used today in data processing.
Anita Borg (1949–2003)
Although I’m sure Trekkies will catch the reference here, I’m not mentioning Anita Borg for her name (not just her name, at least), but for her efforts in obtaining greater representation and equal rights for technical women. A computer scientist and a brilliant technical mind, Anita was a relentless advocate of the rights of nerdy women across the world. After being disappointed by discovering that so few women attended computing conferences, in 1987, she founded Systers, the first email network for women technologists — decades before it was mainstream.
Seven years later she founded the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, and in 1997 the Institute for Women and Technology. Her efforts earned her the Augusta Ada Lovelace Award in 1995, and in 1999, President Bill Clinton appointed her to the U.S. Presidential Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology.
Joan Ball (1934– )
Truly a big underdog among the world-changing minds, Joan Ball invented computer dating more than half a century before Tinder, OkCupid, Grindr… or even just personal computers. In 1964, this working-class woman from London devised a very rudimentary, yet incredibly effective dating system that worked by submitting surveys on lover preferences on punch cards. These punch cards were later run on a time-shared computer that would reveal potential matches, and then people who paid for the service would receive the name and address of their “perfect lover” they were paired with. Sadly enough, though, she never enjoyed any fame or recognition for her invention, and modern historians realized her fundamental role in inventing online dating only recently.
Patricia Bath (1942– )
Today, the world “resilience” has become a symbol of the women’s struggle against discrimination and disparity. The first name who comes into my mind when I think of “resilience” is Patricia Bath. The first African American female doctor to receive a patent for a medical invention, Bath was the daughter of an immigrant from Trinidad and a woman descended from African slaves and Cherokee Native Americans.
Despite growing up surrounded by sexism, poverty and racism that characterized Harlem back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Patricia was so smart and determined that she graduated from high school in just two years. Her entire career was just amazing, and in 1983 she was the first woman in the United States to be appointed chair of ophthalmology. After discovering that blindness among African Americans was double that among all other patients, she invented the LaserPhaco Probe, a machine that is still used worldwide to painlessly remove cataracts with a laser and restore sight to countless patients. (For more historic women, check out The Women of ENIAC: Programming Pioneers.)
These names are just a handful and this list all but exhaustive. Writing about all the women who’ve shaped the world of technology would require a multi-volume encyclopedia. But what really matters is that today, the world is full of just as many nerdy tech women who are doing their work as their male counterparts. May they all live long and prosper!