Women in a man's world

Women inventors and their influence on today’s technologies

By Claire Marchand

Women’s contributions to science, technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) have often been overlooked and left out of history books. When asked to name inventors, people tend to cite Thomas Edison, Graham Bell, Benjamin Franklin or Albert Einstein. Gender stereotypes die hard. Some women were fortunate enough to have their work recognized during their lifetime; many others received only posthumous recognition. This has changed in recent years and light is finally being shed on their essential work.

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) – The first computer programmer

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace, née Augusta Ada Byron, revealed a talent for numbers and language at an early age. The daughter of Lord Byron and Anne Isabella Milbanke, Baroness of Wentworth, she was brought up by her mother – Byron left them a few weeks after Ada’s birth, never to return – and received a very unconventional education for an aristocratic girl of that era. Her tutors taught her mathematics and science because her mother thought that the rigor and discipline would keep her away from the moody and unpredictable temperament shown by her father. 

At 17, she met and became friends with Charles Babbage, a mathematician and inventor who served as her mentor. Through him, she began studying advanced mathematics at London University. Babbage had invented the difference machine – an ancestor of the computer that could perform mathematical calculations – and had made plans for the analytical engine, designed for more complex calculations. Asked to translate an article on the latter from French into English, Lovelace not only did what was required but also added her own thoughts and ideas on the invention. Her notes were three times as long as the original paper and her work was published in an English science journal in 1843. 

Her notes described how codes could be created for the device to handle letters and symbols along with numbers. She also devised a method for the machine to repeat a series of instructions, the looping process used by computer programmes today. 

Her husband, William King, Earl of Lovelace, whom she married in 1835, was always very supportive of her scientific endeavour. 

Lovelace’s contributions to computer science remained a well-kept secret for more than 100 years. In 1953, her notes were republished in a book by B.V. Bowden, Faster than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines. In 1980, the US Department of Defense honoured Lovelace, giving the name Ada to a new computer language. 

ENIAC (1946) – The refrigerator ladies

The ENIAC programmers (Photo: Los Alamos)

In 1943, two men, John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, along with the United States Army, began designing and engineering a system called the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), part of a secret World War II project. They explored the possibility of an electronic calculator made from wiring and vacuum tubes and detailed their plans in a paper entitled The Use of High-Speed Vacuum Tube Devices for Calculation. To complete their project, they needed people, math majors, to programme the machine.

Six mathematicians, all women, were chosen. They learned to program without programming languages or tools, because none existed. They used only logical diagrams and the work they did calculating ballistic trajectories was extremely complex. When the project was completed, ENIAC could run missile trajectories in seconds. 

When ENIAC was unveiled to the press and the public in 1946, the six women – Kay McNulty, Betty Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Frances Bilas and Ruth Lichterman – remained invisible. What’s more, most of them didn’t receive recognition for their work during their lifetime. They appeared in photos documenting the project but were, for many years, mistaken for models posing next to the machines. Some called them the "refrigerator ladies"! 

Grace Hopper (1906-1992) – First Lady of software

US Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper

"Amazing Grace" for some, the "First Lady of Software" for others, US Navy Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper was a leading figure in computer science and programming from the 1940s to the 1980s. 

Born in New York, she graduated from Vassar College in 1928 with a bachelor in mathematics and physics. She then went to Yale where she earned a master’s degree in mathematics in 1930 and a PhD in 1934. Née Grace Murray, she married New York University Professor Vincent Foster Hopper in 1930 and retained his name after their divorce in 1945. 

From 1931 to 1943, Hopper occupied various positions, from mathematics assistant to associate professor, at Vassar. In 1940 she applied to the US Navy but was refused. She persisted and in 1943 joined the US Navy Reserve, enlisting in the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). A year later she was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard where she was part of the Mark I computer programing staff headed by Howard Aiken. The Harvard Mark I, or IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC) was a huge electromechanical computer (16 meters long, 2,4 meters high weighing 4 500 kg), that was used to compute data for the scientists working on the Manhattan Project, the R&D undertaking that produced the first nuclear weapons. The Mark I also computed and printed mathematical tables, as inspired by Charles Babbage’s analytical engine. 

Programmers can thank Hopper for making their life and work easier. When she began her career, all computer programmes were written in numerical codes by people with a mathematical background. To make computer coding more accessible, she devised a human-friendly programming language that used English words that were then translated into machine codes. She met with much resistance but persisted in her endeavor, and in 1952, the first "compiler" was born. 

Hopper was in the team that developed COBOL (Photo: Vassar Archives and Special Collections)

In the late 1950s, Hopper was part of the team that developed COBOL, the Common Business-Oriented Language used by businesses and governments. In the following years, many computer companies had developed their own – not always compatible – version of COBOL. In the late 1960s, Hopper was Director of the Navy Programing Languages Group and as such, developed validation software for COBOL and its compiler in an effort to standardize COBOL for the entire Navy. In the 1970s, she was responsible for the implementation of standards for testing computer systems and components, including COBOL. Since the 1980s, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has taken over this role. 

On a more anecdotal note, Hopper is said to have coined and helped popularize the terms "bug" and "de-bugging", after a moth was removed from inside her computer. 

Hopper has received a great number of awards, including the first "Computer Science Man of the Year Award" in 1969. She retired in 1986, at 79, with the rank of US Navy Rear Admiral. In 1997, the US Navy named a new guided-missile destroyer in her honour: USS Hopper. 

Lovelace, Hopper and the ENIAC women all contributed greatly to the development of today’s computer programming languages. Hopper’s efforts to standardize COBOL in particular, have shown the need for interoperable languages. In 1987, the IEC and ISO established ISO/IEC JTC 1: Information technology, a Joint Technical Committee that has brought about a number of very successful and relevant information and communication technologies (ICT) International Standards in many fields: IC cards (smart cards), automatic identification and data capture (AIDC) technologies, information security, biometrics, cloud computing, multimedia (MPEG), database query and programming languages as well as character sets, to name just a few. In particular, its Subcommittee ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 22 deals with programming languages, their environments and system software interfaces. 

Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) – Hollywood star and inventor

Hedy Lamarr

MGM studios called her "the most beautiful woman in the world". After leaving her native Austria - and a first husband – in 1938, when Germany invaded her country, Hedy Lamarr – née Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna – met MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer who offered her a movie contract in Hollywood. 

Beauty and acting weren’t her only gifts. She was an inventor in her own rights, although the press took little interest in this aspect of her personality at the time. Long after her acting career went into decline at the end of the 1950s, Lamarr’s inventions and love of science came to light, culminating in prestigious awards. In 1997, together with her friend and co-inventor, composer and pianist George Antheil, she received the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Pioneer Award and the BULBIE™ Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, a prestigious lifetime accomplishment prize for inventors, dubbed "The Oscar™ of Inventing". And in 2014 Lamarr and Antheil were posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. 

Hedy Lamarr's patent

During World War II, not wanting to limit her contribution to the war effort to what was demanded of Hollywood actors, i.e. troop entertainment, Lamarr who had gained previous knowledge about torpedoes from her first husband, military arms merchant and munitions manufacturer Friedrich Mandl, asked Antheil to help her develop a communication system using frequency-hopping signals to guide radio-controlled missiles underwater so that they would be undetectable, and therefore could not be jammed, by the enemy. To create the device, Antheil synchronized a miniaturized player-piano mechanism with radio signals. In 1942, they were granted a patent for their invention. 

At the time, the US Navy seldom considered inventions made outside of the military and didn’t use the "secret communications system". Twenty years later, the importance of their work was finally recognized when an updated version of their design was used by the Navy during the Cuban missile crisis. 

Last but not least, Lamarr and Antheil’s work with spread spectrum technology contributed to the development of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, technologies that are essential to the work of ISO/IEC JTC 1 and its subcommittees. 

Mária Telkes (1900-1995) – The Sun Queen

Mária Telkes

Hungarian-born Mária Telkes moved to the US in 1925 after obtaining her PhD in physical chemistry from the University of Budapest. In 1939, she joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Solar Energy Research Project where she worked until 1953. At MIT, she developed the first thermoelectric power generator in 1947 and the first refrigerator using the principles of semiconductor thermoelectricity in 1953. 

During World War II, Telkes worked for the US Office of Scientific Research and Development, where she developed a solar distiller capable of vaporizing seawater and recondensing it into drinkable water. Army life rafts carried the distiller during the war and a rescaled version of it was deployed to supplement the water demands of the Virgin Islands. 

Telkes is also remembered as the woman who, together with American architect Eleanor Raymond, designed and built the first modern residence heated by solar energy. The system used a chemical process that crystalized and retained the heat and then radiated it back to keep a constant temperature. 

Telkes is considered one of the founders of solar thermal storage systems, earning her the nickname "the Sun Queen". She received many prestigious awards during her lifetime. 

Telkes is one of the inventors and scientists whose research led to major advances in solar photovoltaic (PV) and solar thermal technologies in the second half of the 20th century, as well as to the creation of two IEC TCs whose standardization work addresses solar energy, IEC TC 82: Solar photovoltaic energy systems, and IEC TC 117: Solar thermal electric plants. 

Marie Van Brittan Brown (1922-1999) - The first CCTV

Marie Van Brittan Brown

In the 1960s, Marie Van Brittan Brown lived in the New York borough of Queens with her husband and two children. She was a nurse and her husband an electronics technician; both had irregular work schedules and she often didn’t feel safe when alone at home. Crime rate was high and police response time often too long. Because she resented opening her door not knowing who was calling, she came up with a homemade solution that she devised with her husband’s help: four peepholes and a camera that slid up and down to film what could be seen through each hole. What the camera picked up was transmitted to a monitor inside and a two-way microphone permitted conversation with anybody outside the door. In addition, buttons could sound an alarm or remotely unlock the door. 

In 1969, the Browns received a patent for their invention, the groundwork for CCTV and all modern home security systems. 

In 1979, the IEC set up IEC TC 79: Alarm and electronic security systems, which prepares Standards for the protection of buildings, persons, areas and properties against fraudulent actions. The equipment and systems include access control, alarm transmission, video surveillance, building intercom, digital door locks, fire detection and fire alarm, intruder and hold-up alarm to name but a few.