Women’s History Month: 5 Women Who Changed Technology

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Some say that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. But did you know that you have a greater age if you measure your lifespan in Venus years? It’s true: on average, women live far longer than men do. That means women experience more years of history. That also means women have more years to make a historical impact. Recognizing this impact is what Women’s History Month is all about.

As we celebrate Women’s History in March, we need to keep the legacy of women in mind. While we should honor the history of women, we also need to recognize that women have played major roles in humanity’s collective progress. Not a single field of study or industry can claim its level of achievement without female influences.

On that note, I’d like to call out five brilliant women who have made outstanding contributions in technology. 

Ada Lovelace Was the First Programmer

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Is it surprising that the first programmer lived in the 1800’s? Lady Lovelace was born Ada Byron, daughter to the poet Lord Byron. She became a mathematician and created the first primitive software, after overhearing Charles Baggage describe his Analytical Engine at a dinner party. His device was the first machine designed to compute. But Lady Lovelace’s idea of using the machine to calculate Bernoulli numbers gave birth to the first computer program.

Lady Lovelace would make many influential predictions about computers. She imagined a world in which machines composed music, manipulated images, and aided in scientific discoveries—and she was right. It was her vision to infuse mathematics with imagination.

Hedy Lamarr Was a Hollywood Actress Who Pioneered Wireless Communications

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During the peak of her Hollywood career, Hedy Lamarr was considered one of the most beautiful women in the world. What many didn’t know was how intelligent she was. Lamarr was interested in science since childhood, and if given a choice, preferred intellectual conversations to glamorous parties.

When WWII broke out, Lamarr invented frequency-hopping technology. When considering how to help Allied torpedoes find their mark, she realized that torpedo signals would be difficult to jam if they jumped frequencies. This method paved the foundations for modern Bluetooth, GPS, and cellphone networks. When Lamarr finally received an award for her breakthroughs in old age, she simply responded with, “Well, it’s about time.” 

Dr. Grace Murray Hopper Led Business Software Development and Coined the Phrase “Bug”

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Talk about overachievement! Dr. Grace Murray Hopper was an admiral, academic, and businesswoman. She had a hand in developing the first naval and business computers. A major contribution she leaves behind is the creation of user-friendly programming languages that allow people to give computers directions. Without her, we wouldn’t have today’s robust software.

Another interesting fact about Dr. Hopper is that she coined the term “computer bug.” One day, her team encountered a computer failure they couldn’t understand, until they opened the machine. That’s when a moth flew out. Since then, we’ve used the terms “bug” and “debug” when referring to computer issues. 

Margaret Hamilton Wrote the Code That Put Humans On the Moon

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We always say “man on the moon,” but humankind’s feats in space wouldn’t have been possible without a woman. Take Margaret Hamilton, who wrote crucial software for the Apollo mission. Although she originally had simple plans of putting her husband through school as an MIT programmer, she would actually end up playing a big role in history.

Hamilton often brought her 4-year-old to the lab, working meticulously to ensure the moon mission was seamless. One day her child was playing with the command module, triggering a system error. This prompted Hamilton to add backup code, just in case the astronauts accidently made the same mistake. Turns out that extra step would ultimately save the Apollo mission. When the astronauts did in fact commit the same error, the mission’s success was owed to Hamilton’s work. 

Dr. Shirley Jackson Made Physics Breakthroughs that Enabled Telecommunications

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Photo by World Economic Forum

One of the most accomplished women in technology is Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, also the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate from MIT. Jackson has been appointed to numerous senior governmental roles such as Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Co-Chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, and member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Beyond her titles, Jackson’s research in theoretical physics has enabled many of today’s technologies. Her work allowed others to implement portable fax, solar cells, and fiber optic cables. Currently, she is president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and advocates for scientific progress.

So, there you have it. It goes without saying that technology owes just as much to the Margarets and Shirleys of the world as it does to the Johns and Ricks. Although the nature of technology makes us look to the future, we can’t forget how women have brought us to where we are in this space. Just as Chris Young discussed during his RSA keynote, we are lacking an abundance of STEM talent today. We need more skilled individuals in these industries, particularly women. As Sheryl Sandberg and others have pointed out, female perspectives can advance innovation in a male-dominated tech industry. While we’re proud of our diversity at McAfee, there’s always room for improvement across our industry as a whole, and we’re excited to see what the future holds.

The amazing contributions these women have made are part of the story of technology. Join me in celebrating them on Twitter, by using the #WomensHistoryMonth hashtag.

 

gary

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