Women who changed the world
From early computers, to wartime inventions, the beginnings of the internet and beyond. Women have always been innovators in technology and science breaking down barriers in the process.
In honour of International Women’s Day, I’ve chosen to highlight the women who inspire and influence me. These women have shown us new ways to use technology, opened doors for others, and changed the world.
1914 – 2000
Inventor and actress
Well known for her iconic roles in films of the 1930s and 1940s, Hedy Lamarr was also an inventor. She improved the aerodynamics of Howard Hughes planes by designing a new wing shape and created technology that would become the wifi, GPS, and Bluetooth we use today.
Born in Austria, Hedy began acting in her teens and played significant roles in European films during the 1930s. She ultimately escaped an overly-controlling husband to London, then sailed to the United States. She continued her acting career in New York City and Hollywood, starring in MGM films. During this time she also honed her skills as a self-taught inventor. The technology she developed with fellow inventor George Antheil uses rapidly changing radio frequencies to prevent enemies from decoding messages. This system was called ‘frequency hopping’ and was a precursor to modern cellphone security as well as military communications.
Hedy wasn’t recognised for her invention until years later when her patent had long lapsed but went on to become the first woman to receive the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Pioneer Award.
I love Hedy’s story and how she pursued her interests in technology while working in film. She dedicated so much energy to inventing, all while the world knew her as simply ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’.
There’s a lot more to Hedy’s story so check out the links to learn more about her life.
- Hedy Lamarr on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
- The Girls in the White Dress
- Hedy Lamarr: The Incredible Mind Behind Secure WiFi, GPS And Bluetooth
- How Sexism Punished Inventor Hedy Lamarr
- Thank This World War II-Era Film Star for Your Wi-Fi
Image source: Wikicommons
1920 – 2007
Katsuko Saruhashi is known for her discoveries in geochemistry, and for paving the way for women in the field by advocating for them and their work.
Katsuko researched and made groundbreaking discoveries bringing attention to the effect of nuclear fallout and CO2 in oceans. There was controversy around her research at first as it was originally thought the fallout would disperse evenly through the ocean. The US Atomic Energy Commission had her come to the USA to repeat the experiments and compare methods. This research was so groundbreaking it became the global standard. It also contributed to putting a stop to nuclear testing in the Pacific.
Not only did Katsuko earn a PhD in chemistry, the first for the University of Tokyo, she also received Japan’s Miyake Prize for geochemistry, the Avon Special Prize for Women for promoting the peaceful use of nuclear power, and the Tanaka Prize from the Society of Sea Water Sciences.
Through her success, she gave back by creating the Society of Japanese Women Scientists and the Saruhashi Prize to recognise the achievements of women in science.
“I would like to see the day when women can contribute to science & technology on an equal footing with men.”
Katsuko’s work is particularly important as we learn more about how we are affecting our environment. As a New Zealander growing up in the 1980’s nuclear testing in the Pacific was a hot topic. Thanks to Katsuko the world has had to think more critically about climate change and the important role women play in science and technology. Check out the links for more about Katsuko’s work and legacy.
- Meet Katsuko Saruhashi, a resilient geochemist who detected nuclear fallout in the Pacific
- Katsuko Saruhashi turned radioactive fallout into a scientific legacy
- Who Was Katsuko Saruhashi? 10 Things To Know About The Feminist Geochemist
- Katsuko Saruhashi: Why Google honours her today
Image: Sankei Archive/Getty Images
Kathleen Booth is the creator of the world’s first assembly language, three early computers, and an early machine learning engineer.
Before computer science degrees existed, the C language or Kathleen’s assembly language was written, computers had no way to store code. The breakthroughs made by Kathleen and her team made it possible to move away from manually programming with cables and switches and bought computers into the future.
Her other accomplishments include the first investigation into asynchronous v synchronous operations in 1947, linguistic processing, creating games on computers, and early implementations of machine learning in the 1950s.
Kathleen’s research and pioneering work changed the world of technology forever. Read more about her incredible work and groundbreaking research in the links below.
- Kathleen Booth: Assembling Early Computers While Inventing Assembly
- Computing History profile
- Kathleen Booth in Memory of Legends
- Programmers Assemble profile
1924 – 2013
Jet propulsion engineer
Yvonne Brill was a distinguished and award-winning rocket and jet propulsion engineer. Her work not only contributed to the reliability of systems used in space exploration, but she returned to her research after raising a family in a time when this was not the norm.
Yvonne’s career began in the field of mathematics and chemistry before moving into rocket science. She was the first female to enter the field in the 1940s. Her most famous invention was the hydrazine resistoject propulsion system, now the industry standard for keeping satellites in orbit.
Her many honours include the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the nation’s highest honour for engineers and innovators, the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, the AIAA Wyld Propulsion Award, and the American Association of Engineering Societies John Fritz Medal.
“I think my biggest contribution now can be to ensure that women who deserve to be nominated for awards get nominated.”
Even with all her awards and accomplishments, the New York Times overlooked them in her 2013 obituary. This has since been amended but before the outcry, they focussed on highlighting how she ‘made a mean beef stroganoff’ before mentioning her groundbreaking research. Read more about her contributions to aeroscience below.
“There are still companies all over the place where they have just one woman engineer. And that individual needs to have someone – others to relate to, to maintain their equilibrium sometimes in that job that they hold, you know, to help them realize that they’re on the right path.”
- NY Times Changes Yvonne Brill Obituary After Criticism
- Know Your Scientist – Yvonne Brill
- Pioneer Canadian rocket scientist dead at age 88
Image: NY Times
1933 – 2011
Mathematician and rocket scientist
Annie Easley was a NASA computer and rocket scientist who made modern spaceflight possible. She was also an accomplished athlete, speaker, and tutor.
During her time at NASA Annie worked as a ‘human computer’ playing a crucial role in everything from improving aeroplane stability to charting spacecraft trajectories. Later she worked with FORTRAN, SOAP, and the code used in alternative energy research.
The technology she developed, the Centaur rocket, was the first of its kind and uses liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen to boost rockets into space. This is still in use today and has powered exploration to the moon, Mars, and Saturn.
“I [was] out here to do a job and I knew I had the ability to do it, and that’s where my focus was, on getting the job done. I was not intentionally trying to be a pioneer. My mom said, ‘You can do anything you want to, but you have to work at it,’ and that was part of it. With her strong teachings, I was able to do it.”
In addition to her career in science spanning over 30 years, she is remembered for her contributions to the community. She helped members of her community prepare for literacy tests designed to exclude African Americans from registering to vote.
Annie’s work broke down barriers for women and people of colour and continues to inspire.
- Annie Easley helped make modern spaceflight possible
- Meet Annie Easley, the barrier-breaking mathematician who helped us explore the solar system
- Black Past profile
- NASA profile
Computer scientist and engineer
Ida Holz is known for her work bringing the internet to Uruguay. This was recognised by the Latin America and Caribbean Network Information Centre with the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009, and the Internet Hall of Fame in 2013.
Ida was one of the first Uruguayan computer science students while the country was under military rule. She and her family sought exile in Mexico where she became an expert in computer networking. After returning to Uruguay she worked for the Central Computer Service for 20 years. During this time she established the top-level country domain and first internet connection for Uruguay in 1993.
“For developing countries like ours, the Internet is a means of collaborating and access to knowledge all around the world alike.”
This groundbreaking work led to collaboration across countries and the formation of the Latin American Network Forum, the Latin American and Caribbean Internet Address Registry, the organisation of Latin American and Caribbean ccTLDs and the Latin American Cooperative of Advanced Networks (RedCLARA). Ida has also given back by creating an initiative to implement the “one laptop per child” model to introduce technology to public schools.
Ida has truly changed the world for South America and her recognition in the Internet Hall of Fame is incredibly well deserved.
- Ida Holz — Latin-American Internet Pioneer
- From Uruguay to the world
- Ida Holz: “We Must Change Everything In Education: From Structures To Forms Of Conduction”
- Uruguayan Ida Holz in the Internet Hall of Fame
Image: Women with Science
Karen Spärck Jones
1935 – 2007
Karen Spärck Jones worked in computer science in the fields of natural language processing and inverse document frequency since the 1960s. This research formed the technology that powers the search engines we use today.
Her work extended to teaching and elevating women in computer science. She mentored PhD students, spoke at the first Grace Hopper Conference, and set standards for work in the natural language processing field.
Her research was recognised by the American Society for Information Science and Technology, the Association for Computational Linguistics, the American Association for Artificial Intelligence among many others.
“I think women bring a different perspective to computing, they are more thoughtful and less inclined to go straight for technical fixes. My belief is that, intellectually, computer science is fascinating – you’re trying to make things that don’t exist.”
- Geek Feminism profile
- A week of Women in STEM: Karen Spärck Jones
- Why SEOs should get to know Karen Spärck Jones, the originator of search engine algorithms
Image: University of Cambridge
Lynn Conway is a computer scientist, former professor, and advocate for transgender people.
Lynn studied physics, engineering and applied science at MIT and Colombia University. She went on to work at IBM making considerable contributions, inventing multiple-issue out-of-order dynamic instruction scheduling that enhanced computer processing power. This work was cut short when she was fired in 1968 for revealing her intention to undergo gender affirmation surgery.
She then started her career from scratch at Computer Applications Inc and Xerox, going on to create VSLI technology that allows many more tiny transistors to be arranged on an integrated circuit. During this time she kept her past identity a secret.
It was only when she was nearing retirement when her work at IBM was likely to be revealed when she was comfortable telling her story. She is now a prominent advocate for transgender people and has been honoured for this work by President Obama.
“If you want to change the future, start living as if you’re already there.”
In 2020 IBM apologised for firing Lynn and awarded her with their Lifetime Achievement Award. Her work both in technology and her work as an advocate has changed millions of lives and should be celebrated.
- Life, Engineered
- Thank Lynn Conway for your cell phone
- Lynn Conway talks career, LGBT advocacy
- The Many Shades of ‘Out’
Kanchana Kanchanasut is a computer scientist and researcher who bought the internet to Thailand. Her work establishing connections between universities and registering the top-level domain for Thailand earned her honours from the Internet Hall of Fame in the Pioneer category.
Her studies in computer science began in Australia where she earned a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Melbourne. She continued her research work at the Asian Institute of Technology building the first computer network in Thailand to communicate outside of the Kingdom.
More recently she started the Bangkok Internet Exchange (BKNIX), the first open and neutral internet exchange point in Southeast Asia.
- AIT’s Prof. Kanchana inducted into global Internet Hall of Fame
- Thai professor wins internet award
- Internet Hall of Fame profile
- GISWatch profile
Janese Swanson is best known for her award-winning games and toys designed to encourage girls to learn more about technology. Her dedication to innovative product design, and not submitting to manufacturers pleas to make her inventions pink, have changed how the world thinks about girls toys.
Her work at Broderbund in the 1980s saw her developing software with children in mind. This included co-developing the Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? video game. In 1995 she went on to found her own company, Girl Tech, creating a voice-activated diary lockbox, the Friend Frame, and books on technology.
Her work has been recognised by the National Association of Women Business Owners, Women in Communications, Webgirls, and the YWCA of the USA.
“There is a real need in our culture to introduce girls to technology-based products and electronics at an early age. It not only increases girls’ self-esteem but helps to broaden the opportunities available to them in the future.”
- Janese Swanson: Inventing a Better Way
- Innovative Lives: Janese Swanson, Beyond Pink and Fluffy
- Women, Art & Technology profile
- High-Tech Girls Toys
Image: Tech Heroines
This is by no means a complete list of all the incredible, pioneering, women in technology and science who have paved the way for us. There are many others who pushed the boundaries of what was expected of them and changed the world.
If the tech industry is to move forward and become more diverse we need to celebrate their stories and encourage those who are following in their footsteps. I hope this post inspires you to #ChoosetoChallenge or encourage the women in your life.