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Did You Know That Women Were the First Computers?

12 Women In Tech You Should Know (But Probably Don’t)

Having worked in technology most of my career, I was surprised to learn the origin of the word “computers” recently. Always associating them with a machine, I now understand that the first computers were women, literally tasked with complex computations. The first “computer” was Williamina Fleming. 

In the 1800s, men were gathering information about stars and planets at the Harvard College Observatory. They needed someone to crunch the astronomical numbers to calculate relationships and effectively measure the universe. Considering this lowly clerical work, the head of the observatory asked his housemaid, Williamina Fleming, to work as a “computer” at Harvard. Fleming agreed, going on to lead a team of more than 80 women who did the computational work that’s responsible for how we understand the universe today.

Later, these female “computers” would take on complicated calculations plotting ballistic trajectories for the military during World War II. When two men decided to build a machine that could take over these calculations, it was the female “computers” who programmed it.

The following women’s work is primarily related to computers, the internet and mobile devices. Some women’s stories are from the past, some are still working, most are largely forgotten or unheard of. 

Women in Tech You Should Know
Victoria Alonso. A male-dominant industry is visual effects, which makes Victoria Alonso’s rise from production assistant to Executive Vice President of VFX and Post Production at Marvel Studios by age 40 an admirable accomplishment. Her accolades include overseeing VFX for blockbuster movies like Iron Man, Shrek, the Avenger series, Guardians of the Galaxy, and more.

Donna Dubinsky. Early cell phones were just phones. The person who brought a “personal digital assistant,” or PDA, on a cell phone to market was Donna Dubinsky. While the prototype was built by a dude, Dubinsky—an alum of Harvard Business School and Apple—built the first PDA company, Palm (with its infamous Palm Pilot). The device provided computing and information storage capabilities widely used by business people to keep schedules, calendars and address book info. She went on to start Handspring, developing the Visor PDA, able to also access programs.

Woman looking at code

Annie Easley. Annie Easley was another early pioneer that made the jump from “human computer” to computer programmer in the 1950s while working at the organization that would become NASA. As one of only four African-American employees, she became well known for her work encouraging women and people of color to enter STEM fields.

Elizabeth Feinler. Before it was called the internet, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) was just a series of nodes connecting research institutions under the Department of Defense. Overseeing the entire directory of the fledgling internet, through the “Network Information Center” (NIC) was researcher Elizabeth “Betty Jo” Feinler. There was no Google, so if one needed to find a web address or create a new one, they needed to go to Betty Jo. Feinler eventually helped transition to the Domain Name System (DNS); introducing the domain naming protocol, including all the dot coms, dot nets and dot govs that exist today.

Adele Goldberg. Back in the 1970s, Adele Goldberg was a technology manager working with a team of men who jointly built the Smalltalk-80 programming language at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Park, team member Alan Kay and others developed the infrastructure and design for overlapping windows on display screens, or what we know as “Graphical User Interface” (GUI) adopted by Apple, and also templates that would become the building blocks of software development. 

Grace Hopper. Nicknamed “the Mother of Computing,” Rear Admiral Grace Hopper also worked in the Harvard Computational Lab for the Navy, programming the Mark 1 computer. This device brought speed and accuracy to gun firing control systems. She later developed the first business computer for Eckert-Mauchly. She advanced the idea that computer code could be read like a language in English, and was one of the architects that developed the COBOL computer language still in use today.

Karen Sparck Jones. In the early days of internet connected computers, conducting a search was clumsy and inaccurate. Karen Sparck Jones laid the groundwork for the sort of information retrieval we use today. She introduced natural language processing, allowing for computational recognition of similar words. And she also introduced the idea and methods of “term weighing” in information retrieval, which helps determine which terms were the most relevant in a search queries, making results more accurate. 

Susan Kare. Building on the GUI inspired by Adele Goldberg’s team at PARC, the graphic designer Susan Kare developed the idea that computer icons should look like real world objects. She created Apple’s signature graphics, such as the clock, pointer finger, trash can and command key that are still in use today. She also redesigned Apple’s logo.  

Ada Lovelace. A visionary before her time, Ada Lovelace is considered to be the founder of scientific computing and the first computer programmer. Her algorithm was the first one designed for a machine to carry out. She died in 1858, and a machine that would use such an algorithm was not completed until 1941.

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Carol Shaw. Early video games were pretty basic by today’s standards, but a lot of manual coding went into those first efforts. Many were designed and programmed by Carol Shaw, the first female game designer.  Shaw is best known for creating the Atari 2600 vertically scrolling shooter game River Raid in 1982. 

Mary Allen Wilkes. Not only did Mary Allen Wilkes help develop what is now considered the first “personal computer,” she was also the first person to have one in her home. Wilkes worked on the LINC computer as a programmer and instructions author. She is credited with writing the LINC’s operating program manual, and she was also the programmer of the LAP6 operating system for the LINC. She took the LINC home with her in order to write the operating system, helping to make working remotely a reality for so many of us today.

To read about notable women in other STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Math) fields, see this article published by the White House under President Barack Obama. 

Today, more women and girls are making impacts and amazing accomplishments in STEM fields but there’s still room for improvement and advancement opportunities for women in the workplace. Despite gains, women in tech are still a minority. Even tech giants like Apple, MicrosoftGoogle and Facebook, struggle to create technical workforces made up of even 30% women. A study by, a nonprofit that works to advance women in computing, found women in tech felt they had to work harder than men to prove themselves. However, most women surveyed—54%—were hopeful that diversity and inclusion would improve in the next five years.

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