The Information Technology industry is sometimes perceived as a mostly-male one, and International Women’s Day (March 8) seems a good occasion for a little fact-checking: are women new to this business? Do we have any female references in IT-related fields? Sure, we all recall Ada Lovelace, considered the first programmer due to her work on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, but… what about others? Let’s meet some women who, from a technical point of view, have patently influenced information technologies.
In the beginning there was war
Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born in Vienna in 1914, the only child of Gertrud, a Jewish pianist, and Emil, a bank manager who enjoyed explaining to his daughter how several technologies influenced society, and inspired her to try new things. Little Hedy was very fond of some of those technologies, such as cinema, and began her career as an actress at 16. In 1933, she married a charming admirer, who happened to be the third-richest man in Austria at that time. By marriage, Hedy became a trophy wife and met interesting people, as well as some of her husband’s clients, such as politicians and military from Italy and Germany. Hedy, who would be known as the most beautiful woman in film, had married a weapons merchant.
At first, Hedy managed to stand the situation. She welcomed strangers, she was nice to people, she smiled, and she listened to the conversations. As the situation of Jews began to turn worse, she decided to leave her husband and finally fled from Europe to the USA.
When she arrived there, she already had a contract with one of the most important studios in Hollywood and began a new life: a new name, new acquaintances, a new career as an actress… all while keeping the same old habit of tinkering and trying new things. She met people like aviation tycoon Howard Hughes (whom she suggested successful ways of improving wing designs) or avant-garde musician and inventor George Antheil, who had already experimented with innovations in music by synchronizing several pianos to play simultaneously.
Together, Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil devised a way to remotely guide torpedoes and stop the infamous German submarines who were wreaking havoc in the Atlantic.
This method is known as frequency-hopped spread spectrum, and basically succeeds at enabling a larger number of simultaneous communications than previous techniques and being undetectable and unjammable.
Coming from a pretty actress, the technique wasn’t taken seriously, and she was invited to support the war effort by selling war bonds or even kisses. As a result, the invention remained unused by the military until 1957. Later on, it became the basis of modern wireless technologies.
During World War II, lots of anonymous women contributed to the war effort by joining multiple female branches the military had set up. Grace Murray Hopper tried to enlist in the Navy but was rejected because she was too old and, on the other hand, her job as a mathematician and mathematics professor was valuable to the war effort.
Nevertheless, she joined the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, the women’s branch of the United States Naval Reserve) and began her computing career in 1944, mostly dealing with complex calculations the Navy needed to focus on their targets. Later on, she thought that those tasks would be much easier if people could communicate with the machines by using their own language instead of symbols. Although the original idea was to use English at first and progressively add other languages such as German, no other language was added and COBOL was born in English. At an old age, she fondly remarked the training of young people as her most important accomplishment, other than the compiler. She forgot to mention that her leadership style had become legendary. Among other awards, she was named the first ever computer science “Man of the Year” by the Data Processing Management Association (1969).
She eventually became a Commodore (a senior naval rank in the USA) and, by the time she retired, Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper was the oldest-serving officer in the U.S. armed forces. Long after her death, her legacy is still alive.
The sky is the limit
Amazing Grace Murray Hopper dreamt big: she used to say she wished she could own one of those machines, so she could continue work at home. At that time computers were so huge they occupied full rooms, so thinking of having one at home or even having more than one computer was a dream. Years went by, and miniaturization brought smaller devices with greater computing power. Computer networks developed, and nowadays having several interconnected machines is not only possible, but mostly a requirement. People carry tiny devices in their pockets, or even wear them, and all these kinds of devices interconnect by using different evolutions of Hedy Lamarr’s invention. The amount of data to process keeps growing at an accelerated pace, and information technologies open new, unexplored paths.
Katie Bouman was a student when she began dreaming of opening some of those unexplored paths. Some people were working hard on demonstrating theories through the observation of the Universe, but there was a little obstacle to achieve some of them: a telescope would be needed about the size of the whole Earth. Lots of people worked hard on dodging this annoyance. As a PhD candidate, she proposed a way of taking advantage of distributed computing methods to achieve this goal. The whole explanation can be found on this video.
To put it in a nutshell, she realized that by teaming up telescopes from all around the world, the equivalent of a giant telescope could be achieved and the measures they were looking for could be obtained by using an optimized algorithm to combine the massive amount of data obtained.
The results are explained in this video by Dr. Bouman herself, who laughs out loud when she thinks her dream is fulfilled. The final picture of a black hole is an example of what can be achieved by lots of people working as a team and helping each other.
The impact of Hedy Lamarr on communications, Grace Hopper on programming languages or Katie Bouman on distributed computing are just three examples of the contributions of women to these fields. Who said that Information Technology was a mostly-male industry?
[HL01] https://www.hedylamarr.com/ Official website
[HL02] https://www.dpma.de/english/our_office/publications/ingeniouswomen/hedylamarr-erfinderischefemmefatale/index.html German Patent and Trade Mark Office (in English)
[HL03] https://patents.google.com/patent/US2292387A/en “Secret communication system”
[HL05] https://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/201106/physicshistory.cfm American Physical Society
[GH08] https://archive.computerhistory.org/resources/access/text/2015/06/102702026-05-01-acc.pdf Oral History of Captain Grace Hopper (Interviewed by: Angeline Pantages. Recorded: December, 1980. Naval Data Automation Command, Maryland)
[GH09] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZR0ujwlvbkQ Grace Hopper’s lecture on the future of computing.
[KB01] http://users.cms.caltech.edu/~klbouman/ Personal page at Caltech
[KB03] https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01155-0 Black hole pictured for first time [KB04] https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.3847/2041-8213/ab0e85/meta