SQL University: Women In Technology (WIT) Throughout History

Welcome back to SQL University! My esteemed colleague, Prof. Jen McCown (blog | Twitter), and I are bringing you lessons on Women In Technology (WIT) this week. Today, I am going to take you back in time to learn about some of the women that have made important contributions to the technology field.

I have always loved reading. In middle school, I went through a biography phase. One day, I picked up the story of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to graduate from medical school and become a doctor. That was an important book in my life, because I never realized that women weren’t doctors at some point in history. I then went on to read books about Amelia Earhart, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sally Ride, among others. I was fascinated, intrigued and inspired by women that weren’t afraid to follow their hearts and their passions, even if what they loved wasn’t a “woman’s job”.

As I grew up and began taking more math and science classes, I struggled sometimes with being the only girl in the class. But I remembered my heroes, the amazing women I had read about, and that put it in perspective. In college, when I was the only woman in my database design class and one of two women in my advanced Visual Basic class, I fell back on these stories as well.

Entering the IT field, becoming a Woman In Technology, has opened the door for me to learn about some of the amazing women that have blazed a fiery trail through this field before me. Let me introduce you to some of the most significant women in the history of technology.

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace lived from 1815-1852. You’ve probably heard of her referred to as the “first computer programmer”. But, wait, computers? Were those around back then? An English mathematician, Charles Babbage, was creating the Analytical Engine – an early computer. It would accept input, perform operations, and produce output. The input would come in the form of punch cards.

Ada translated a paper for mathematician Luigi Menabrea regarding the machine. She became interested in it and included a section on how to use the machine to calculate Bernoulli numbers. Because of this, she is regarded as the first programmer.

What I think is great about Ada’s story is that she was introduced to mathematics very early in life. It’s not only okay, but also important, to introduce girls to math and science! I also think this Ada t-shirt from ThinkGeek.com is awesome: http://www.thinkgeek.com/tshirts-apparel/womens/dd9e/.

Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper lived from 1906-1992. She too was a mathematician, earning a Ph. D. in mathematics from Yale in 1934. She then served in the United States Navy Reserve. Here, she had the opportunity to be one of the first programmers on the Mark 1 computer system, which did calculations for the U.S. Navy Bureau of Ships. She also worked on the Mark II and Mark III computer systems.

Grace then went on to work on the team that designed the UNIVAC 1, the first commercial computer. Her next major contribution was working on the COBOL language. In the 1970’s, she worked on implementing standards for testing and compiling programming languages. All her life, she was dedicated to technology.

So, the next time someone jokes, “Remember COBOL?!” – remind them a woman helped write it!

ENIAC programmers

Do you know the names Katheleen McNulty, Betty Jennings, Betty Holberton, Marlyn Meltzer, Frances Spence and Ruth Lichterman? You should! These six women were the primary programmers for ENIAC, Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, a United States Army computer project in the 1940’s.

Betty Jennings and Frances Spence

Kathleen “Kay” McNulty earned a degree in mathematics from Chestnut Hill College for Women. She read about the U.S. Civil Service looking for women with math degrees, applied, and went to work! She also married and raised five children, and continued to work in programming.

Betty Jennings, later known as Jean Bartik, majored in mathematics at Northwest Missouri State Teachers College. She went to work on ENIAC, then the BINAC and UNIVAC systems as well.

Betty Holberton studied mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania, and majored in journalism. She also worked on UNIVAC, her favorite project, and later the COBOL and Fortran languages.

Marlyn Meltzer loved calculus and graduated from Temple University. Frances Spence majored in mathematics and minored in physics at Chestnut Hill College. Ruth Lichterman earned a degree in mathematics from Hunter College. These women made significant contributions to the project as well.

What is amazing and inspiring about all of these women is that they were earning degrees at a time when women in mathematics were rare. They persevered and contributed to a ground-breaking computer project.

Barbara Liskov

In 1968, Barbara Liskov made history: she was the first woman in the United States to be awarded a Ph. D. in computer science, from Stanford. She has been involved in technology ever since! She is currently a professor at MIT, and in 2008 won the ACM Turing Award for her work, only the second woman to receive it.

Barbara grew up interested in math and science. She always knew she would go to college. After attending UC Berkley for undergraduate studies in physics and mathematics, she went to work for Mitre and Harvard. While working as a programmer, she decided to return to school and applied at Stanford, earning her Ph. D. After completing school, she went to work for Mitre again, where one of her first projects was working on the operating system Venus. Then, in 1972, she joined the MIT faculty.

She has worked on the CLU language, data abstraction, and distributed computing. She has won many awards and honors. Another first that she achieved was becoming the first female associate head of the computer science department at MIT. And she has done all of this while being married for over 30 years and raising a family!

You can read an excellent interview with Dr. Liskov regarding her work, and her thoughts on WIT, at http://news.cnet.com/8301-1001_3-10217055-92.html.

Radia Perlman

Another inspiring woman is Radia Perlman, sometimes referred to as the “Mother of the Internet”. Radia earned her Ph. D. in computer science from MIT in 1988, but had been working on programming since her undergraduate days in the early 1970’s.

She invented the spanning-tree protocol, a link layer network protocol; has over 70 patents in her name; has authored two highly regarded networking textbooks; and has won many awards. She is currently working as an Intel Fellow.

Mary Lou Jepsen

Have you heard of the One Laptop Per Child organization? The mission statement begins, “To create educational opportunities for the world’s poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning.” One of the founding members, and the CTO until 2007, was Mary Lou Jepsen.

Mary Lou has earned a Master of Science in Holography from MIT, and a Ph. D. in Optical Sciences from Brown. She has created some of the largest ambient displays in the world. She helped create the first holographic video system in the world. She went on to help invent the XO laptop for OLPC. In 2008, she started her own company, Pixel Qi, to work on more portable computer screen innovations.

Who is next?

These are just a few of the thousands of women that have contributed to science, technology and computing. By being inventors, innovators, thinkers, scientists, mathematicians, and programmers, they have affected your life and mine. Remember, also, that they did this while balancing work with their lives as wives, mothers, daughters, sisters and their other interests.

I would like to say, to all the women that have made a contribution to technology, “Thank you. I wouldn’t be here today without you.”

To other WIT, let me remind you that you are not alone. We have had amazing pioneers, and contemporaries, and we need to lay the foundation for the next generation.

And to all the girls or women considering entering the technology field, I say, “Do it!” Never underestimate yourself – I could be writing about you next!

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “SQL University: Women In Technology (WIT) Throughout History

  1. Pingback: SQL Awesomesauce » Blog Archive » Issues for Women in Technology – SQL University

  2. Radia Perlman is also known as being an author for one of the foundational network security tomes in the field. :-)

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