Computers have come a long way, thanks to the many pioneers in the field. Frances Allen (1932–2020) was one such pioneer. She was a computer scientist who helped create faster, easier, and more practical ways to build even more powerful and efficient code. In turn, that led to advancements in supercomputers and other areas of computing. In 2006, Allen became the first woman to receive the Turing Award, considered to be the “Nobel Prize” of computing. Allen passed away in August, but the computing world will never forget the contributions that she made.
Wondering about other women who made significant contributions to the world of computing? Here are just a few:
Ada Lovelace (1815–1852)
Lovelace was a mathematician, but historians often refer to her as the first computer programmer. Why? Because she was the first person to publish an article about the Analytical Engine (otherwise known as the computer today) where she described a step-by-step sequence of operations that would solve certain math problems. Historians also point to her as the first person to realize the potential for computers to expand beyond mathematics. In other words, she was the first person to suggest that computers could potentially do things such as compose music. Turns out she was right!
Grace Hopper (1906–1992)
A graduate of Yale University, Hopper was known as one of the first three modern “programmers” and was a trailblazer in the world of building and creating computer programming languages. While she used her knowledge and skills to help program things such as the first general-use computer, the Mark I, she also used her skills to help fight World War II and the Cold War. As a member of the US Navy, she worked on secret code to calculate rocket trajectories and calculations to build bombs. And if you’ve ever heard of the word “bug” in computing, Hopper is credited for coining the term. How did the word “bug” become the commonly known word for “problem” in computing? In 1945, Hopper and her colleagues were working on the Mark II when they encountered a problem. To figure out what it might be, they took the computer apart. Inside, they found a moth. Hopper then began to refer to computer problems as “bugs” and “debugging” as the method for solving a computing problem.
Katherine Johnson (1918–2020)
Johnson was a brilliant mathematician who played a crucial role in the success of NASA’s first and many subsequent manned space flights. She was called a human computer for her ability to calculate complex math problems and was among a group of female African-American mathematicians who played a significant role in the early success of the US space program. In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 2019, NASA renamed the street leading up to its headquarters in Washington, DC, Hidden Figures Way—acknowledging the contributions of Johnson, her colleagues Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, and the many other female African-American mathematicians known as the West Computers.
Margaret Hamilton (1936–)
Hamilton was instrumental in getting Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin safely to and back from the moon. Why? Hamilton and her team worked on computer code for the command and lunar modules of the Apollo 11. She is also credited for inventing the title “software engineer,” which described the work that she did—figuring out system errors and recovering information from computer crashes. In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work in computing.