5 Tech Pioneers You Might Not Know About

April 06, 2021

Since the Great Recession of 2007 - 2009, the tech industry has led the way in terms of job growth across the globe. Every breakthrough and startup creates new opportunities for people to find work. Yet in terms of gender equality, the tech industry lags behind many other sectors in the economy. 

A 2019 report by United Nations University and EQUALS stated that women represented only 30% of the tech workforce in Silicon Valley, while throughout Europe only 21% of tech roles were filled by women. 

And this was before the pandemic struck. Though the virus itself seems to affect women less severely than men, COVID’s economic fallout has disproportionately harmed women, who are more likely than men to hold temporary jobs and spend more time on childcare duties.

Despite this gender imbalance in today’s tech workforce, women have played starring roles during some of digital technology’s most exciting chapters. 

In honour of International Women’s Day, let’s take a look at five women tech pioneers (in chronological order of their key contributions). Some you might’ve heard of (but could always stand a refresher). Others are less well known, which is all the more reason to celebrate their achievements.

Ada Lovelace

Born Augusta Ada Byron, Ada Lovelace was the daughter of poet Lord Byron, who departed England forever just a few months after Ada was born. Ada’s mother was afraid the girl would grow up to be insane like she considered her husband to be, so she strongly encouraged the child’s interests in mathematics, as opposed to more artistic pursuits. 

The encouragement succeeded. As a teenager, Ada encountered the English mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage and observed his so-called Difference Engine — an automatic mechanical calculator. She was so amazed by the unusual device that she began spending as much time around Babbage as possible.

In her twenties, Ada translated an article that had been written in Italian about Babbage’s new invention, the Analytical Engine. She also appended notes that ran much longer than the article itself. In these notes, she included a method of calculation that is now generally considered the first-ever published computer algorithm.

Today, in honor of her contributions, many computing and technology awards, organizations, and facilities carry her name.

Hedy Lamarr

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler started out acting in Austria, but not long before World War II, she moved first to Paris, and then to London, where she met Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer fame, who offered her a movie contract. The rest, as they say, is history. 

Her meeting with Mayer was only the first in a series of fortuitous encounters. While working in Hollywood, she also got to know Howard Hughes, the film director, pilot, and engineer — among other illustrious titles. Hughes found out that Lamar liked to “tinker” in her spare time. She’d created her own traffic light and carbonated drink. Soon she was collaborating with Hughes on the design of his aeroplanes.

But it was her work with the composer George Antheil that earns her a top spot on most women-in-technology lists. 

During the war, Lamarr and Antheil teamed up to engineer a frequency-hopping signal to help radio-controlled torpedoes avoid tracking or jamming. Later in the 20th Century, her work during the war would be cited as an essential early step in the technology that led to the development of both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi capabilities. 

The ENIAC “Girls”

In America during the 1940s, the word computer was just beginning to apply to machines. More commonly, a computer was a job title — i.e., someone who computes or runs calculations. 

It was often considered more a secretarial job than a technical one, which explains how six women — Fran Bilas, Betty Jennings, Ruth Lichterman, Kay McNulty, Marlyn Meltzer, and Betty Snyder — ended up being recruited to design the world’s first programmable digital computing machine.

ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) was intended for running quick calculations of ballistics trajectories. After the war ended, though, the work continued, now with a new purpose: nuclear war.

By that time, the women’s years of focused work had made them experts on the machine. Otherwise, they might’ve very well been replaced by men, returning from the war. Still, despite their expertise, several would never receive the recognition they deserved. 

Today these women are finally acknowledged as pioneers of modern computing. A documentary about their work can be viewed online for free here.

Grace Hopper

As a young girl growing up in New York City in the 1910s, Grace Hopper formed the habit of taking apart alarm clocks to try and figure out how they worked. This curiosity, especially regarding automated machines, would lead her on to become one of the world’s preeminent early computer programmers.

Prevented from joining the Navy during World War II because she was too old (34) and too thin (52 kg), she served in the Naval Reserve and went on to work with Harvard physicist Howard Aiken on the famous early IBM computer called the Mark I.

Later, while working on the UNIVAC — the first computer designed in the U.S. for business applications — she came up with the idea of teaching computers to understand English. Instead of giving a computer instructions in code, she wanted to be able to type commands using actual words. At first most of her colleagues thought she was wasting her time. But they didn’t think so for long. 

The programming languages she created — MATH-MATIC and FLOW-MATIC — would go on to become COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language), still in use today. As for Grace herself, she went on to have a U.S. naval destroyer named after her, before receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama.

Mary Wilkes

Mary Allen Wilkes had wanted to be a lawyer. But her friends discouraged her. It was too tough a job for a woman, they said. There was too much discrimination. So, after graduating Wellesley College in 1959, she went into computer programming, a field just as unwelcoming to women. 

Wilkes worked with the Lincoln Laboratory on the creation of the LINC — the world’s first personal computer. She made a series of critical contributions to the project, though it’s not what she did that garnered her the most renown, but rather where she did it — at home. 

In 1964 she was living with her parents in Baltimore and making history by using a LINC to work from home. This simple act made Mary Wilkes the first person to use a personal computer at home. 

Then, in 1975, she went ahead and became a lawyer after all.