As a global event celebrates the life and work of Ada Lovelace, the creator of the world’s first computer program, we look at the women who made an incalculable contribution to engineering, technology or mathematics
Today is the fifth annual Ada Lovelace Day, celebrating the life of the famous mathematician and pioneering computer scientist. The day is organised to celebrate those women who worked as engineers, scientists, technologists or mathematicians and to encourage a new generation to follow in their footsteps. We look at some pioneering female technologists who helped to create the world which we live in today.
The only child of Lord Byron and Anne Isabella Byron showed such a talent for mathematics that she ending up studying with and befriending Charles Babbage, and the two regularly corresponded about his Analytical Engine – Babbage’s theoretical design for a mechanical machine to automatically perform calculations.
She once translated an article about the Engine by an Italian engineer, but embellished it and added notes on how an algorithm could be run on the machine to compute Bernoulli numbers. This is widely regarded to be the world’s first computer program – even though an Analytical Engine was never constructed due to financial constraints and it could never be tested.
A computer language created for the United States Department of Defense, Ada, is named in her honour. And in 2012 Google remembered her with a Doodle on what would have been her 197th birthday. The progression from her calculations to the modern day laptop was detailed in the design, with three interim images of technological breakthroughs in computing since the 19th century.
Her lasting legacy for young women in technology is also remembered on Ada Lovelace Day, which is dedicated to the celebration of the achievements of women in science and technology. Organisers ask the public to write something about a woman, or women, whose achievements they admire, which is then published on the event’s website .
Dr Timo Hannay, managing director of Digital Science, said: “Ada worked in an environment that, to put it mildly, hindered the intellectual and vocational progress of women.
“Society has changed since then, as has science. Women are just as committed and capable as men when it comes to building a career and having a positive impact on the world.”
Born in Maryland in 1883, Edith Clarke was orphaned at the age of 12 and used her inheritance to study mathematics and astronomy at Vassar College. She would later go on to work as a human “computer” – performing calculations by hand that today would be done by machine – for researcher George Campbell, who was working on modelling long-distance electrical transmission.
She later went on to become the first woman to complete a masters degree in electrical engineering from MIT and to invent the Clarke calculator, which allowed engineers to carry out equations about electrical systems up to ten times faster than existing methods.
Grace Murray Hopper
Grace Murray Hopper was one of the first people to program the Harvard Mark I computer, which was used, among other things, to perform calculations for the Manhattan project to create an atomic bomb during the latter part of World War II.
She also invented the first compiler for a programming language and popularised the concept of languages which were independent of specific hardware, and able to be compiled to run on any computer.
After completing a PhD in mathematics at Yale she went into academia, but took a leave of absence in 1943 to join the Navy Reserves and use her skills for the war effort. Despite a successful career outside of the Navy she also rose to the rank of rear admiral. In fact, she retired several times, but was twice called back into active duty because of her expertise.
Her contribution to the military and computer science is illustrated by the fact that she has both a Navy destroyer and a Cray supercomputer named after her. She is also the source of the term ”debugging”, meaning to remove errors from computer code, after pulling a dead moth from a machine that had stopped it working.
Radia Perlman has often been called the ‘mother of the internet’ because of her contribution to the spanning-tree protocol (STP), although she rejects the title: “There are lots of people who like to take credit for it, and it drives them crazy when anyone other than them seems to want credit, so it seems best to just stay out of their way.”
STP allows two networks to join together and act as one, and it was a fundamental step along the way from single, disconnected computers to the globally-interconnected system we know today.
Perlman took her degree and masters at MIT, and stayed on to complete a PhD in computer science in 1988. Today she works for EMC Corporation.
Born in Germany in 1882 and schooled at the University of Erlangen where her father lectured in mathematics, Emmy Noether would later be described by Albert Einstein as one of the most important women in the history of mathematics. Her Noether’s Theorem helped to explain the connection between symmetry and conservation laws in physics.
The ENIAC programmers
ENIAC was the world’s first general-purpose computer – that is, it could be programmed to perform a range of calculations, rather than being made specifically to carry out one algorithm, as previous machines had. The Colossus machines at Bletchley Park came several years before it, for example, but were specifically designed to crack codes.
ENIAC was designed to calculate artillery trajectories for the US Army in 194 but was later turned to tasks like the atomic bomb project. The six women responsible for the vast majority of the programming for ENIAC were Kathleen Antonelli, Jean Jennings Bartik, Frances Snyder Holberton, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Frances Bilas Spence and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum.