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Wwwomen Through History


8th March 2021

It’s International Women’s Day, and if that’s not an excuse for a history lesson, we don’t know what is. The history of the internet and digital technology is full of women whose stories are as fascinating as they are important to the equipment and infrastructure’s we all take for granted today.

As you launch an app or load a website, make your way through a global pandemic by recourse to internet deliveries or log in to your latest Zoom call, you’re standing on the shoulders not just of giants – but of amazing women. Take today to raise a glass to them.

Take Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), who published the first algorithm – and in doing so laid the foundations for much of the digital world. Lovelace realised that machines might be useful for more than just adding numbers together, writing that, “the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.” In saying so, she also invented electronic dance music. (We exaggerate, but not by much.)

Ada Lovelace, a color woodcut-style portrait, based on the nineteenth century A. E. Chaton portrait.
“Ada Lovelace, a color woodcut-style portrait, based on the nineteenth century A. E. Chaton portrait.” by dullhunk is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Lovelace has become rightly famous in recent years, featuring in both a Google Doodle and an episode of Doctor Who. But she’s not alone in being a woman to whom we owe a great deal about our current digital world. For example, in the mid-1970s Dr Gladys West pioneered a new way of calculating the shape of the Earth – and in so doing set the process in motion that would end with the invention of GPS. When your sat-nav gets you where you need to go, you have Dr West to thank (it’s totally not her fault when it goes wrong).

Decades earlier, Grace Hopper – eventually a Rear Admiral in the US Navy – invented a computer programme that is widely acknowledged to be one of the first “linkers”. These are packages that take a series of files and combine them into a single file – the basis of ever installer you’ve ever run on your home PC. When you get that exciting new game or download the latest productivity app, you have Hopper in large part to thank.

“Grace Hopper behind my keyboard” by Alexandre Dulaunoy is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

And make no mistake: women were at the very centre of the birth of computer science. In the first half of the twentieth century, women like Gertrude Blanch, Betty Holberton and Ida Rhodes all worked together to lay the mathematical groundwork for the explosion in computing that would follow in the years following the Second World War. 

Blanch led the Mathematical Table Project – which sought to, well, tabulate mathematical functions, and would be invaluable to digital computing. Rhodes worked on that project, too, and went on to work with Holberton on ENIAC the first general-purpose digital computer – they invented the C-10 programming language together.

ENIAC first computer

 
It’s worth saying, by the way, that all six of the ENIAC programmers were women: alongside Rhodes and Holberton were Jean Bartik, Kathleen Antonelli, Marlyn Meltzer, Frances Spence and Ruth Teitelbaum. The ENIAC had forty eight-foot panels; by 1995, all of its functions could be performed by a single silicon chip measuring 7.4mm by 5.29mm. That breath-taking pace of digital development in the second half of the twentieth century rested on the work of those six women.

Their groundbreaking work opened the field for others: from the first African American woman to earn a PhD in computer science (Marsha Rhea Williams, in 1982) to women transforming the sector today like Jaime Levy – who is particularly influential in the realms of interface design and user experience – and the former Corporate VT for Research at Microsoft, Jeanette Wing (she’s now at Columbia University, natch).

If any of this is news to you, that should hopefully demonstrate how important occasions like International Women’s Day are: they give us the opportunity to seek out and remember huge contributions which shouldn’t be forgotten. So happy IWD 2021 – we know you’re reading this on some sort of computing device, so let’s show a little gratitude to the women responsible!

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