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The original computer scientists
The first computer programmers and most celebrated mathematicians throughout history were women. In honor of Women’s History Month, here are the oft-forgotten, influential tech pioneers. In this photo from 1946, two of the first programmers, Esther Gerston and Gloria Gordon work with the ENIAC computer.
Ada Lovelace, first computer programmer
Margaret Knight, famous inventor
Margaret Knight is considered the most famous 19th century inventor. In 1868, she invented a machine that folded and glued paper, which made the flat-bottomed paper bags still in use today. She built a wooden model, but needed an iron one to apply for a patent. Charles Annan, who worked in the shop with her, stole the design and filed for a patent. She sued, was awarded the patent in 1871, and founded the Eastern Paper Bag Co. She also invented several devices for rotary engines and a numbering machine.
Knight's paper bag machine patent
Margaret Knight worked in textile mills throughout her young life, and reportedly designed her first invention at the age of 12. Over her lifetime, she received at least 27 patents, the most famous being this paper bag machine.
Emmy Noether, the master mathematician
Albert Einstein called Emmy Noether the most significant and creative mathematician of all time. She was an extremely influential German mathematician who invented a theorem that explains the connection between symmetry and conservation laws. She also made huge contributions to abstract algebra and theoretical physics. During Hitler’s rise in 1933, she was expelled from her position at the University of Gottingen because she was Jewish, so she gathered students at her apartment to discuss mathematics and field theory.
Grace Hopper, computer programming pioneer
Grace Hopper worked on the UNIVAC in 1960. Hopper was a mathematician and rear admiral in the U.S. Navy. She is perhaps one of the most well-known pioneers in developing computer technology, helping to devise UNIVAC I., the first commercial electronic computer. This led to the development of COBOL, one of the first modern programming languages. She also developed the first complier for a computer programming language, and is known for popularizing the term “debugging.”
"Amazing Grace" Hopper
Here, Secretary of the Navy, John Lehman, promotes Capt. Grace Hopper commodore with President Ronald Reagan present. The USS Hopper Navy destroyer was named after Hopper. The Cray XE6 “Hopper” computer was named for her as well. She also pioneered the testing for computer systems, advocating for networks of small computers in the 1970s to replace large systems.
Betty Holberton, first ENIAC computer programmer
Betty Holberton programs the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was one of the original six programmers for ENIAC. She also helped develop the UNIVAC and its control panels, as well as several programming languages with Grace Hopper.
Jean Bartik, woman computer
In the fall of 1945, Jean Bartik was one of the first women “computers,” which are now known as programmers. In 1997, the six women were inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame.
Jean Bartik, right, and Kay McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, widow of John Mauchly, hold part of the computer he helped design. Bartik was one of the original programers for the ENIAC computer. She later went on to program BINAC and UNIVAC. She was later an editor for Auerbach Publishers, and worked for Data Decisions.
Top Secret Rosies, female programmers of WWII
During WWII, more than 2.2 million women were working in war industries. The factory workers were dubbed “Rosie the Riveter,” which was paired with that iconic image of the strong-armed working woman. But women–including the six original programmers of the ENIAC–were also recruited to be “computers” (programmers) and do ballistic calculations. The programming was done so in secret, so they were not known or adored by the public. The first job for the six women was programming a trigger for the atomic bomb.
Hedy Lamarr, actress and inventor
Hedy Lamarr was a famous Austrian actress and beauty icon, but she also contributed an important invention: the basic technology for spread spectrum and frequency hopping, which led to wireless communications. The technology manipulated radio frequencies to form an unbreakable code to prevent enemy interceptions. She worked on the invention with composer George Antheil in 1941, and was awarded a patent, but the idea was not implemented in the U.S. until 1962. Reportedly, she wanted to join the National Inventors Council, but was not allowed. She was eventually honored for her contributions in 1997.
Katherine Johnson, first female NASA mathematician
In 1953, Katherine Johnson joined Langley Research Center as a research mathematician for National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which eventually became NASA. At first, Johnson was assigned to an all-male flight division. Her assertiveness earned her a place at the meetings, which were previously only for males. At NASA, she joined the the Spacecraft Controls Branch, where she calculated the flight trajectory for the first American into space in 1959, as well as Apollo 11’s flight to the moon in 1969.
Radia Perlman, inventor of STP
Radia Perlman attended MIT in the 1980s, and was one of a very small number of females in her classes. While working for Digital Equipment Corporation, Perlman invented spanning tree protocol (STP), fundamental for the operation of network bridges, as well as contributions to network design and standardization such as TRILL. She was named an Intel Fellow in 2010. Perlman has often been called the “Mother of the Internet,” but she recently opened up to The Atlantic about disapproving of the title.
Anita Borg, lifelong advocate for women in tech
After returning from a conference that consisted of mostly males, Anita Borg started a mailing list for women in technology called Systers. Borg, a computer scientist with a Ph.D. from New York University, was co-founder of the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women, a conference held every two years to honor research by women in computing, and eventually founded the Institute for Women in Technology, a nonprofit focused on encouraging women to enter the computer science and technology fields.