The Unsung Women of Technology

Sure, you've heard of Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper. But how about Frances Allen, Deborah Estrin or Radia Perlman?

Ada Lovelace

The unsung women of technology

Most people already know about Ada Lovelace (in illustration at left), Grace Hopper and the ENIAC programmers of World War II, of course, but many other women have made their mark in technological fields who don’t have the same level of recognition.

In celebration of Ada Lovelace Day, we've compiled an homage to 13 women you might never have heard of but who have made huge contributions to technology or science without quite becoming household names.

Perhaps they will inspire a new generation of women to enter the STEM fields; a smaller percentage of women are earning degrees in computer science now than they were 20 years ago.

Frances Allen

Frances E. Allen: Compiler expert

Frances E. Allen  began working for IBM in 1957. What began as a job teaching Fortran, at that time a new computer programming language, led to a career in the field of optimizing compilers -- programs that translate source code into code that can be used directly by a computer. She also worked on code optimization and code parallelization. The techniques that resulted from her research and work are still used in compilers today.

Allen was also the first woman to be appointed an IBM fellow and in 2006 was the first woman to receive the A.M. Turing Award, considered by some to be the Nobel Prize for computing. 

Yvonne Brill

Yvonne Brill: Rocket scientist

Yvonne Brill developed a propulsion system, patented in 1972, to keep communication satellites from slipping out of orbit. Her inventions, which include the hydrazine resistojet, are still used today. She contributed to rocket designs that NASA used for moon missions, the first upper-atmosphere satellite and the Mars Observer, a robotic space probe.

In the 1940s, the University of Manitoba denied Brill, a Canadian, admission to the College of Engineering because it couldn't accommodate her at a required engineering camp. She instead studied chemistry and math there and earned a master’s in chemistry from the University of Southern California. Among her many honors are induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and receiving the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

Mildred Dresselhaus
REUTERS/Erlend Aas/NTB Scanpix

Mildred Dresselhaus: Carbon fiber expert

Mildred Dresselhaus is best known for her contributions to the field of carbon science. Her work on carbon fibers and related compounds -- begun in the 1960s -- was foundational for future discoveries regarding carbon nanotubes, which can potentially revolutionize technology by making devices smaller and more powerful.

Often dubbed the “Queen of Carbon Science,” Dresselhaus went to Hunter College High School for Girls thinking she would become a teacher. Instead, Dresselhaus studied physics, eventually earning her Ph.D.

She then worked at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratories. This led to innovations in graphite, which is made of sheets of carbon atoms called graphene. When graphene is rolled, it creates carbon nanotubes.  

In 2012, Dresselhaus won the Kavli Prize in Nanoscience.

Deborah Estrin

Deborah Estrin: Embedded sensor pioneer

Deborah Estrin is a pioneer in the field of embedded network sensing, which connects a collection of small microprocessors, around the size of Matchbox cars, to sensing devices like infrared cameras, motion detectors and acoustic and chemical sensors. Those devices, spread over a wide area, monitor the area to detect and record changes. This is related to technology used in "smart" home devices.

Estrin is the director of the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing. Research projects range from using ENS techniques to identify sources of biological and chemical pollutants to using the power of mobile phones for participatory urban sensing, where people choose what to collect and analyze. She was named one of Popular Science's “Brilliant 10 in 2003.

Photograph of Women Working at a Bell System Telephone Switchboard

Erna Schneider Hoover: Telephone switching innovator

Erna Scheider Hoover, who earned a doctorate in philosophy and mathematics from Yale University in 1951, is the inventor of computerized telephone switching methods still in widespread use today. She was working for Bell Labs in 1967 when she observed that a certain number of calls would inundate the call center, causing an overload. Using her knowledge of symbolic logic and feedback, she developed a computerized method to monitor the number of incoming calls at different times and adjust the call center's acceptance rate accordingly. 

Katherine Johnson: Human \computer\

Katherine Johnson: Human "computer"

Katherine Johnson, a mathematician and physicist, worked for NASA as a "computer" from the 1950s until the 1980s. Originally part of a group of women who performed precise mathematical calculations, when she was assigned temporarily to an all-male research team, she quickly proved her value and talent. In 1959 she calculated the flight trajectory for the first manned American spaceflight, and in 1969 she calculated the trajectory of the Apollo 11 spaceflight to the moon. Even after NASA started using electronic computers in 1962, Johnson would verify the computer calculations.

Johnson broke barriers as both a woman and an African-American working in the sciences. Among her many honors, Johnson has won the NASA Langley Research Center Special Acheivement award five times. 

Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr: Frequency hopping discoverer

Best known as a movie star from the 1930s through the 1950s, Hedy Lamarr helped develop the technology underlying wireless phones, wireless Internet and GPS systems.

Lamarr and her neighbor, George Antheil, developed the idea during World War II when it became evident that the enemy could interfere with signals of radio-controlled torpedoes. Her solution: Change the frequency of the control signal and the torpedo at intervals so that they could communicate with each other, but so enemy forces couldn’t obstruct the signals.

Lamarr and Antheil patented their invention in 1942 and gave it to the U.S. military. Though the technology was never implemented on torpedoes, the U.S. used it during the Cuban Missile Crisis to ensure secure communication among ships.

Radia Perlman

Radia Perlman: Internet protocol creator

Often called the “Mother of the Internet,” Radia Perlman invented the algorithm on which spanning tree protocol (STP) is based. After gradating from MIT with an MS in mathematics in 1976, Perlman's job revolved around the task of getting computers to reliably share information. Perlman’s solution was STP, a protocol that disables paths that are not part of the tree while determining backup paths. This creates a single, active path between network nodes, and is still used to route traffic over the Internet. Most recently, Perlman has been working on a new technology called TRILL to replace STP and make better use of bandwidth.

Perlman holds over 50 patents and is has received many awards for her work.

Rosalind Picard

Rosalind Picard: Affective computing pioneer

Rosalind Picard, a professor of media arts and science at MIT, is widely recognized as starting the field of affective computing.  Affective computing is a field of computer science that helps machines recognize, interpret and even simulate human affects and emotions. This sort of technology has many practical applications, but notably is already being used in wearable computing.

Picard, who received her Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer sciences from MIT, has authored more than 200 academic papers and has received many awards for her work. 

Ida Rhodes

Ida Rhodes: Language designer

In the early 1950s Ida Rhodes, who came to the U.S. from Ukraine in 1913, designed the computer language C-10 for the UNIVAC I computer system, which was used to calculate the census. She also designed and programmed the original computer used by the Social Security Administration. Rhodes was widely recognized as a pioneer in designing modern computers; one source cites that at a 1952 conference, Rhodes presented a paper describing a future with desktop computers, multiple programming languages and video displays.

Jean E. Sammet

Jean E. Sammet: Cobol pioneer

Jean E. Sammet, who graduated from the University of Illinois with an M.A. in mathematics, was a key member, along with Grace Hopper, of the committee that developed Cobol in the late 1950s and early 1960s while working for Sylvania. In 1961, Sammet began working at IBM. There she developed the FORmula MAnipulation Compiler, or FORMAC, the first widely used computer language used for manipulating mathematical formulas.

Sammet went on to author Programming Languages: History and Fundamentals in 1969. Her work on programming languages set the foundation for future computer scientists to build upon.


Karen Spärk Jones

Karen Spärk Jones: Natural language processing expert

If you have ever Googled something, you at least partially have Karen Spärk Jones to thank for the relative ease with which your search is completed. Her work in natural language processing and information retrieval made it possible for people to interact with computers using ordinary words rather than codes. She also invented term weighting, or the method used to determine the importance of a word in a document. It is part of the way that search engines score and rank a document’s importance in a search query.

Not long before she died in 2007, Spärk Jones received the Lovelace Medal from the British Computer Society. It was only one among many public recognitions of her work. 

Mary Allen Wilkes

Mary Allen Wilkes: Operating system designer

Mary Allen Wilkes conceptualized and implemented the first computer operating system. She was working at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in 1959 where she had the opportunity to work on some early computers, like the IBM 709 and the TX-2. While there in 1965 she designed the console for the Laboratory Instrument Computer (LINC) and wrote the operating system that sat between the program and the computer's hardware.

She completed a great deal of this work by using a LINC at her home, making her among the first home computer users. In 1975, Wilkes decided to leave the computing world to become a lawyer


Have we forgotten someone you feel is noteworthy? Feel free to have your say in our comments section, below.