The internet is such a staple in our lives that we don’t often take the time to reflect on this invisible marvel that allows us to create, communicate, learn, and thrive. Sadly, the women in tech whose innovations have allowed us to build this digital world have often been just as invisible as the waves that power our broadband.
Women in tech have a long tradition, stretching back even to the era when the doors to formal schooling, much less advanced training in math or science, were virtually closed to them. Nevertheless, their voices—and their legacies—have persisted, something for which all of us who use a laptop, cell phone, or tablet today should be grateful.
In honor of Women’s History Month, let’s explore the stories of three women whose work was fundamental in getting us to where we are today.
Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852) – The World’s First Computer Programmer
As the daughter of British poet Lord Byron and mathematician Lady Byron, Ada Lovelace inherited something from both parents, becoming a devotee of what she called “poetical science.” But when push came to shove it was mathematics that ultimately inspired her.
By the age of just 18, her precocious efforts in the field drew the attention of Cambridge mathematician Charles Babbage, who was working on an early proto-computer known as the “Analytical Engine.” In her notes to one of Babbage’s lectures, Lovelace proposed an algorithm to compute what are known as “Bernoulli Numbers”—something many consider to be the first computer program.
Crucially, she grasped the potential of computers to be more than just a glorified calculator, predicting that, in time, they would be able to produce graphics and even compose music.
While her ideas felt like science fiction at the time, everything she predicted has now come true.
Annie Easley (1933 – 2011) – One of NASA’s First African American Programmers and Rocket Scientists
Born in 1933 in Birmingham, Alabama, the heart of the Jim Crow south, Annie Easley grew up in a time of strict racial segregation. Understanding the power of literacy and voting, as a young woman, she helped African American friends pass the literacy test required to vote.
In 1955, she happened upon an article about twin sisters who worked as “human computers” for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics or NACA, later renamed NASA. Easley applied and was accepted, becoming one of only four African Americans on staff. Once there, she became part of some of the agency’s most important operations. Beginning as a mathematician and computer engineer, she subsequently learned computer programming and became part of the Launch Vehicles Division, developing alternative power technologies through coding.
The pinnacle of Easley’s amazing career was her work on software for the high-energy booster rocket known as Centaur, which was to launch spacecraft from Surveyor to Voyager to the Cassini spacecraft to Saturn.
“If it wasn’t for Easley and her work on Centaur, writes Engadget’s Nicole Lee, “modern spaceflight wouldn’t be possible.”
Muriel Cooper (1925 – 1994) – A Pioneer of Digital Design
Where Annie Easley explored technology through numbers, Muriel Cooper did it through design. A groundbreaking graphic designer, educator, and researcher whose career spanned the bridge between print-based and computational design, Cooper was the first design director for the MIT Press, the co-founder of the institute’s Visible Language Workshop, and the first woman to be granted tenure at its Media Lab.
During this time, she also designed the famous MIT Press logo, iconic books such as The Bauhaus and Learning from Las Vegas, worked with offset press and large-format Polaroid cameras with equal ease, and developed software interfaces for new generations of designers. In short, her work was the epitome of what Ada Lovelace predicted a century before: the dovetailing of computing and design, each enriching the other.
“When you start talking about design in relation to computers,” Cooper once said, “you’re not just talking about how information appears on the screen, you’re talking about how it’s designed into the architecture of the machine and of the language.”
Algorithms, computers, rockets, design: women in tech have done it all, laying the foundation for the digital and online experience we all take for granted today.
These pioneers faced incredible adversity to do so only to then be forgotten by the pages of our history books. That is something we cannot allow continue to happen, either with the women innovators of our past or with the creative leaders of our present.
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