To mark Women’s History Month, we’ve looked through the history of computer science to shine a light on ten pioneering women whose innovation and leadership changed the world. In the spirit of the “History” portion of the name, we’ve chosen to look back at those women who paved the way for today’s technology rather than current leaders like Kimberly Bryant, founder and executive director of Black Girls Code; and Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, who are shaping the future of the tech sector.
Our list is neither exhaustive nor definitive. There are many other worthy candidates and limiting ourselves to ten has resulted in some notable omissions, like Annie Easley, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Katherine Johnson at NASA, who did brilliant work there. Let’s celebrate the extraordinary achievements of our top ten.
Ada Lovelace, 1815–1852. Writer of the first algorithm
Ada, the Countess of Lovelace, is sometimes called the world’s first computer programmer. That’s quite a claim for a home-schooled woman in the early nineteenth century.
She met Charles Babbage, who some call the “father of the computer”. Fascinated by Babbage’s “analytical engine” concept, she wrote a detailed examination of its potential, including how codes on the device could be created to handle letters, symbols, and numbers.
She suggested that any piece of content could be translated into digital form, and she was the first person to develop a method for a process known as looping that computer programs still use today. Her program can be considered the first published computer algorithm. She was arguably the first to imagine how modern computers could be used, over a century before their invention, and she inspired Alan Turing, the “father of computer science.”
Rear Admiral Grace M Hopper, 1906–1992. Creator of programming language
Rear Admiral Hopper joined the U.S. Navy in 1943 and served for 42 years. She was the first person to develop the theory of machine-independent programming languages and was instrumental in creating the programming language COBOL, which is still in use. COBOL derived from her conviction that you could create a programming language based on English. She created a compiler that converted English into machine code.
Hopper developed the implementation of standards for testing computer systems and components for programming languages. These were the forerunners of the work now undertaken by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
Fun fact: In 1947, Hopper recorded the incidence of the world’s first computer bug, when she removed a moth from the workings of the Harvard Mark I computer.
Sister Mary Kenneth Keller, Ph.D, 1913–1985. Creator of BASIC
Sister Mary Kenneth Keller, a nun, was one of the first two people in the U.S. to be awarded a Ph.D, in computer science.
She’s best known for developing the computer program BASIC. Anyone of a certain vintage, mainly “Boomers” or “Gen X-ers,” can thank her for opening up the world of personal home computers and programming to them. Many of us were first introduced to computing and coding through the use of BASIC.
Hedy Lamarr, 1914–2000. Developed the precursor to GPS and Wi-Fi
We go from the modesty of holy orders to the glitz of Hollywood, where we find one of the progenitors of Bluetooth and GPS technology.
First a movie actress in Europe, Hedy Lamarr fled a controlling husband and moved to the U.S., where she carved out a glittering movie career. However, she had long been fascinated with science and innovation and dabbled with inventions as a hobby.
During World War Two, Lamarr and composer George Antheil developed a frequency-hopping system that would stop guidance signals for proposed radio-controlled torpedoes from getting tracked or jammed. The core of this work was later included in Bluetooth and Global Positioning System (GPS) technology and resembles concepts used in older versions of Wi-Fi. Their innovation was inducted into the U.S. National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.
Gladys West, Ph.D, 1930–present. Creator of GPS
Dr. West’s humble origins belie her current status as a technological titan. From a family of sharecroppers and tobacco factory workers, she became a mathematician who was instrumental in the development of modern GPS technology.
She was employed as a computer programmer in what is now the Naval Surface Warfare Center. She specialized in analyzing satellite data to create models of the Earth’s shape, a process that involved using complex algorithms. It ultimately formed the basis of GPS. Dr. West was inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame in 2018. According to numerous interviews, she still prefers to use paper maps to get directions.
Elizabeth Feinler, 1931–present. Developed internet domain classification
Elizabeth Feinler developed the classification of websites and web pages. She led the work that created the Domain Name System (DNS), which turns human-comprehensible website names into IP addresses understandable by machines. Therefore, she helped form the basis for the internet as we now know it.
She was the director of the network information systems center (NIS) at the information research department of the Stanford Research Institute, which some call “the prehistoric Google.” The Institute oversaw internet addresses and domains. They created and managed the registries of all the top-level domains such as.mil, .gov, .edu, .org, .net, and .com. She was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2012.
Karen Spärck Jones, Ph.D, 1935–2007. Built the foundation of modern search engines
Dr. Spärck Jones was a trailblazing computer scientist who laid the foundations for modern search engines by introducing the concept of inverse document frequency weighting (IDF). IDF is used by modern search engines to produce natural language for the searches that we perform every day. Without her, there might have been no Google, Bing, Yahoo, and more!
She was president of the Association for Computational Linguistics (ACL), which gave her a lifetime achievement award.
Mary Allen Wilkes, 1935–present. The world’s first home computer user
Our next pioneer helped develop the first personal computer and is famous for being the first person to have a PC in her home.
This former philosophy student found a job at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in 1959. Back then, almost nobody had any experience writing code, so to get hired, Wilkes simply sat some aptitude tests to see if she could think logically. She had studied symbolic logic as part of her degree, so she aced the tests.
She joined the team that created the LINC (Laboratory INstrument Computer), on which she developed a programming language. Unlike the large, punch-card programmed computers that she had been working on, LINC had its own screen and keyboard. Some consider it the first minicomputer and a precursor to the personal computer. It was installed in Wilkes’s home, so she can claim to be the world’s first home computer user.
Adele Goldberg, Ph.D, 1945–present. Creator of the graphical user interface
Using computers would be far more difficult without graphical user interfaces (GUIs). We must thank Dr. Adele Goldberg for this innovation.
Having earned a Ph.D in information science in 1973, she joined PARC, then an R&D division of Xerox. She and her colleagues developed Smalltalk-80, a programming language that enabled them to create an environment of overlapping windows on graphic display screens. These concepts were demonstrated to Steve Jobs and they inspired the Apple Mackintosh desktop environment when the Apple Lisa was launched in 1983. GUIs rapidly became ubiquitous once Microsoft adopted the technology. By the 1990s, the GUI had become the standard interface for PCs. Now, it’s used in a multitude of other devices. Dr. Goldberg made computers easier, more accessible, and quite simply better.
Radia Perlman, Ph.D, 1951–present. The mother of the internet
Radia Perlman has been called the “mother of the internet” because she invented the algorithm behind the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP). STP is fundamental to the operation of network bridges, allowing networks to deliver data reliably. It established the basic rules of internet traffic. So, Dr. Perlman was instrumental in making today’s internet possible.
She has taught at the University of Washington, Harvard, and MIT, has 80 patents to her name, and has authored two landmark books in the field of network computing.
These women are some of the greatest pioneers in computer technology history. They created new ways of thinking and working, and they set standards of professional excellence, curiosity, innovation, and determination that we at Mend aspire to follow. We salute them all.