5 Women Who’ve Shaped the History of Computing

When celebrating the heroes of technology and IT, men like Bill Gates and the Steve Jobs get the lion’s share of the glory. However, every computing technology innovation–whether programming code, transistors, personal computers or the internet–has been built by groups of people (usually by borrowing from past ideas).

Women have played a significant role in this ongoing technological evolution, but they often go unsung. That’s why we’re highlighting some historic computing milestones, as well as the women who through invention and innovation helped bring them to life. Here’s a toast to 5 mothers of today’s IT who are behind everything from the fundamentals of computing to personal computers and the internet.

Computing Algorithms – Ada Lovelace

The world’s first algorithm was written for an early computing machine–called the Analytical Engine–designed by Charles Babbage in 1834. Babbage, who had corresponded with Ada Lovelace about math and computing for years, commissioned her to translate a transcript of one of his lectures about the machine into English. Lovelace not only translated the lecture, she also added her own extensive notes to it. It ended up three times longer than the original, demonstrating that she not only understood the math behind Analytical Engine but she also understood its potential.

Her notes included her theory that a machine could be used to manipulate numbers that represented more than just quantities; in fact, numbers could also be made to represent data. And thus machines might one day also manipulate data to perform innumerable tasks, like creating graphics and composing music. While her work was largely overlooked for years, today she’s celebrated every year on October 15, Ada Lovelace Day.

Programming – Grace Hopper

Early on, Grace Hopper was exposed to many of Lovelace’s (and Babbage’s) more philosophical ideas about machines and their capabilities. It’s believed that they influenced her thinking about computers. Instead of thinking about them as big calculators, Hopper realized that they were actually symbol manipulators.

This approach caused her to begin thinking about how to make machines easier to use by creating higher-level languages. She recognized that if programming were more language based–rather than machine based–then there might be more programmers. To this end, in 1958 she developed a programming language, dubbed FLOW-MATIC.

During this same period, the rising cost of programming was a growing concern. New programming languages were proliferating at an ever-increasing rate. Business and the government wanted a way to convert data faster and cheaper. A formal meeting was called to discuss this problem, and Grace Hopper was a participant.

The result of that meeting, and many subsequent ones, was that COBOL (an acronym for “common business-oriented language”) was invented. Featuring English-like syntax, COBOL was it is highly readable—and based on FLOW-MATCI. As a result, Hopper became popularly known as the Queen of Software and the Mother of COBOL.

User interface design – Susan Kare

We all take for granted that when we interact with our computers, pointing and clicking on handy, understandable icons. However, until 1984 most interactions with computers were typed using a blinking cursor and a keyboard. The command looked something like: “C:>RUN autoexec.bat”. The dramatic transformation between how we once used computers and how we now use them today is thanks in part to Susan Kare.

Her influence started with Apple’s release of the first Macintosh computer. Easy-to-use, low-cost, and designed for the average consumer, Macintosh computers gained a large part of their appeal due to Kare’s work on them. With a background in art and graphic design, Kare was hired to design Apple’s fonts and icons.

Her often whimsical bitmap graphics brought Macintosh computers to life. Kare created the original “happy Mac” icon, which greeted Apple users booting up their computers, as well as other familiar Mac elements, such as the command key symbol (a simplified representation of what a castle might look like from the sky) and desktop trash icon. When Jobs was forced out of Apple in the mid-1980s, Kare left to join Microsoft. There, she worked on making the Windows 3.0 OS more user-friendly.

Ethernet/networking – Radia Perlman 

Radia Perlman helped make Ethernet technology a household name by creating the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP). STP bridges two computer networks, enabling them to exchange data packets (or “frames”). Thanks to STP, switched network environments can connect bridges and switches with multiple paths for data transmission without creating a loop which can be deadly to a network.

Essentially, STP made it possible to build massive computer networks using an Ethernet. Without it, if a frame got caught on an Ethernet network loop, data traffic would get out of control and all other data would be prevented from getting through. STP had a significant impact on network switches (the technology behind internet routing), which is why many call Perlman the Mother of the Internet.

Internet – Elizabeth Feinler

In the 1970s and 80s, Elizabeth Feinler was on several projects that led to the creation of the internet, making her instrumental in the fundamental ways that it works. At one of her jobs, Feinler worked as a principal investigator for the Network Information Center (NIC) project at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). During that time, she worked on the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), a network that connected various research centers across the United States.

The NIC provided ARPANET users with various support services, which started out as a manually compiled published directory of people. As part of this project, Feinler’s group also created and managed the first host-naming registry for the internet, as well as the current domain naming system (.com, .org, .edu). Later, that project evolved into the Defense Data Network (DNN). Both ARPANET and DNN were forerunners to the internet.

Spread the word – women in IT rock!

These pioneering women and their important contributions continue to shape today’s technology in profound ways. And their legacy goes far beyond IT. As trailblazing women in predominantly male professions, they have ensured that other women can follow in their footsteps.

However, when their efforts are not acknowledged more loudly, many women remain in the dark about their own career possibilities in the profession. Recently, the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, Resha Saujani, stated in a New York Times article: “If women had been more prominently talked about in computing, both in the history books and schools, we literally would not have the lack of women programmers that we do today. It’s about role models. You can’t be what you cannot see.”

Technology is never stagnant. Every day a new idea has the potential to plant the seed for the next revolution. As more women blaze new trails in computing, our technology will be sure to be the better for it. Let’s cheer for the efforts of every woman working in IT who is contributing to the goal of narrowing the gender gap!