Do You Know the Women Who Made Computing Possible?

There’s a gender gap in technology, and it’s getting worse. According to Girls Who Code, in 1995, 37% of computer scientists were women. Today just 24% of computer scientists are women – and the decline will get worse, unless more girls start coding and keep coding.

Currently, plenty of young girls learn to code in school, but many stop as teenagers — Girls Who Code finds that most girls drop coding between the ages of 13 and 17. This may be because computer science and technology are often thought of as “male fields,” but did you know that women made modern computers possible?

In fact, without a teenage girl, there would be no computers at all. It all started in the 1800s when a beautiful young noblewoman with an infamous father started helping a mathematician work on a project: The Analytical Engine.

Ada Lovelace

Born in 1815, Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, was the only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron the poet. Her father — who left her mother a month after Ada was born — was known for his wild behavior and many affairs, so to keep her daughter from becoming like him, Lady Byron steered Ada away from poetry and toward math and science.

The young Ada was known for having a brilliant mind. As a teenager, she was introduced to mathematician Charles Babbage, who was then working on the difference engine, a calculating machine. Together they designed the Analytical Engine, the first general use computer. It was Lovelace who wrote the first algorithm, which would allow the Engine to calculate a sequence of numbers. That algorithm was the first computer program.

Hedy Lamarr

Born in Vienna, Austria, Hedy Lamarr was a famous actress in the 1940s. She made her career in Hollywood with glamorous roles, such as Delilah in Samson & Delilah. In her spare time, however, Lamarr was a self-taught inventor. She suggested that Howard Hughes change the design of his planes to make them faster, and worked on a new, improved stoplight.

When World War II broke out, Lamarr, a native Austrian, felt uncomfortable sitting in Hollywood and not assisting with the war effort. That’s when she heard about a problem with the Navy’s newest torpedoes.

At the time, radio-controlled torpedoes could easily be jammed and guided off course. Lamarr’s idea: a frequency-hopping signal that could neither be jammed nor tracked. Working with a collaborator, she invented a device that created such a signal and patented it. The technology was later used by the U.S. during the Cuban Missile Crisis and a version of it is used in Bluetooth technology today.

Lamarr may have become famous as an actress, but she was a wireless pioneer.

Katherine Johnson

Born in 1918, Katherine Johnson was a mathematical prodigy from an early age. However, as a Black girl in the then-segregated United States, she faced many obstacles when it came to studying math — one of the earliest obstacles was that her hometown in West Virginia didn’t provide education beyond the eighth grade for African Americans. Her family instead sent her to high school in another town when she was 10 years old (she graduated at 14.) She also couldn’t find any mathematician jobs after college, even after earning an advanced degree. She turned to teaching and then raised her family.

She returned to a career in math when the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) began hiring mathematicians. Johnson worked in a segregated pool of female mathematicians — literally called “computers” — although she quickly stood out to the white men in charge because of her abilities. When NASA took over the pool, Johnson continued working, calculating the trajectory for the 1961 flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and later the 1969 mission to the Moon.

At the time, NASA was moving to digital computers — Johnson, known for her accuracy, worked with early computers. Her influence helped promote confidence in the new technology.

Girls and coding

Mathematics and code know no gender. Without women, computers, as we know them, would not exist. But without encouragement, fewer and fewer girls will learn how to code.

Enroll your daughters today and see how they might change the world with code. Sign up for two free classes today!

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