Women in Technology

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

Profiles of female trailblazers in technology

by Jennie Wood
Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace, the First Computer Programmer

Women in Technology

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A quick look at the history of technology will reveal that women have been involved from the beginning. Starting with Ada Lovelace, the world's first computer programmer, women have been innovators in technology for years. Here's a closer look at some of the most important women involved in the history and evolution of technology.

Ada Lovelace
Mathematician, Writer, Computer Programmer
Born: December 10, 1815
Died: November 27, 1852

Born Augusta Ada Byron on December 10, 1815, the only legitimate child of poet Lord Byron and Anne Isabella Byron, Ada Lovelace was a writer and mathematician. She worked on Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, an early all-purpose computer. Her notes, written in 1842 and 1843, for the Analytical Engine became the first algorithm encoded to be processed by a machine. Therefore, Lovelace was the world's first computer programmer.

Lord Byron separated from his wife and left England when Ada was just four months old. He died when Lovelace was eight. Bitter at Lord Byron, Ada's mother encouraged her daughter's passion for mathematics in the hope that it would prevent Ada from developing the same "insanity" her father had. Upon her death, Lovelace requested to be buried next to her father. Throughout her life, Lovelace referred to herself as an analyst and a "poetical scientist."

Grace Hopper
Computer Scientist, U.S. Navy Officer
Born: December 9, 1906
Died: January 1, 1992

Along with rising to the rank of Rear Admiral in the United States Navy, Grace Hopper was a computer scientist pioneer. Hopper was credited with popularizing the terms "computer bug" and "debugging" after her associates discovered an actual moth in the Mark II computer at Harvard University. Hopper was one of the first Harvard Mark I computer programmers. She was also the primary creator of COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language), one of the first programming languages. COBOL first appeared in 1959.

The oldest of three children, Hopper was born in New York City. She dismantled her first alarm clock at age eight, to see how it worked. In 1928, she graduated from Vassar with a bachelor's degree in physics and mathematics before going on to receive a Master's degree from Yale University. While at Vassar, she took a leave of absence to enter the U.S. Navy Reserve, serving in the WAVES. By 1934, she had a PH.D. in mathematics from Yale. In 1930, she married NYU professor Vincent Foster Hopper. They divorced in 1945 and she never remarried.

Hedy Lamarr
Actor, Mathematician, Inventor
Born: November 9, 1913
Death: January 19, 2000

Hedy Lamarr was an internationally known Austrian-American actor. Born in 1913, she was a major star during the "Golden Age" of Hollywood. Not only was she under contract in America with MGM, but she worked in Berlin with director Max Reinhardt. Lamarr also excelled in mathematics. With avant-garde composer George Antheil, she invented an early version of frequency hopping, a necessary component of wireless communications used today.

In the early 1940s, Lamarr approached Antheil with her idea of a secret communication system. By 1942, they were granted a patent in the U.S. for their early version of frequency hopping, which involved a piano roll changing between 88 frequencies. The idea was presented to the U.S. Navy to use as a defensive tactic to make radio activity more difficult for enemies to figure out. It was finally used in the 1962 blockade of Cuba. In 1997, the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave Lamarr an award for her work with frequency hopping. Lamarr died in 2000 at the age of 86.

Jean E. Sammet
Computer Scientist
Born: March 23, 1928

Born in New York City in 1928, Jean Sammet was an early American computer scientist. In 1962, she created FORMAC (FORmula MAnipulation Compiler), the first computer programming language that was widely used. From 1955 to 1958, she worked for Sperry Gyroscope where she ran the first group of scientific programmers. She then moved on to Sylvania and became a member of the first COBOL group. It was while working at IBM that she developed FORMAC.

In 1974, Sammet became the first female president of the Association for Computing Machinery. She's written multiple books, including Programming Languages: History and Fundamentals. She was a recipient of the 1989 Lovelace Award and the 2009 Computer Pioneer Award, given by the IEEE Computer Society.

Roberta Williams
Video Game Designer, Writer, Co-Founder of On-Line Systems
Born: February 16, 1953

By the time she retired in 1999, Roberta Williams was considered one of the most influential video game designers. Best known for the King's Quest series, she's also known for the video adventure games Mystery House and Phantasmagoria.

Ken Williams, Roberta's husband, was also a pioneer in video games. Together the founded On-Line Systems, which evolved into Sierra Entertainment. They also created many graphic adventure games together. In 2011, Gamezebo reported that, even though she had retired, Roberta Williams was working on Odd Manor, a social networking game.

Sheryl Sandberg
Chief Operating Officer of Facebook
Born: August 28, 1969

Sheryl Sandberg became Facebook's chief operating officer in 2008. In June 2012, she was elected to Facebook's board of directors, becoming the first woman to serve on the board. Also, in 2012, she made Time magazine's annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. In 2013, Sandberg published her first book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. The book expanded on Sandberg's belief that women themselves are the reason there is a lack of female leaders in the world of business and politics.

Prior to Facebook, Sandburg served as chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers during Bill Clinton's time as president. In 2001, she began working at Google. From 2001 to 2008 she was Google's vice president of operations and global online sales. While at Google, she also helped launch Google.org, a charitable branch of the company.

Sandberg serves on the following boards: Walt Disney Company, Women for Women International, Center for Global Development, and V-Day. She is married to David Goldberg, the CEO of SurveyMonkey. They have two children.

Marissa Mayer
Computer Engineer, Chief Executive Officer, Yahoo!
Born: May 30, 1975

In July 2012, Marissa Mayer was named president and CEO of Yahoo!, making her the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company at age 37. Also, in 2012, she was ranked 14 by Fortune magazine's for their list of American's Most Powerful Women in Business.

Mayer started at Google in 1999 where she became their 20th employee and first female engineer. She was at Google for 13 years and helped develop Google Search, including their no frills homepage, as well as Google Maps, Gmail and iGoogle.

In February 2013, Mayer made a personnel policy change at Yahoo! that made headlines and caused controversy. She banned telecommuting and asked all employees working remotely to work in the office full time or resign from the company. Mayer implemented the policy after giving birth to her son and returning to the office where she built a nursery next to her office suite.

Mayer also serves on the board of directors for Walmart, Cooper-Hewitt, New York City Ballet, National Design Museum, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and San Francisco Ballet. Mayer is married to investor Zachary Bogue.

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