Each time you turn on your home computer, connect to a WiFi network, or type something in a word processing app, you have a woman to thank. These applications and devices are so ingrained in the way we work and live in the modern world, and they were all built by women engineers.
In the early days of programming and computing, many women’s contributions and achievements in the field were overlooked or dismissed. For Women’s History Month, we’re recognizing the women technologists who’ve played a huge role in shaping our technological landscape and are responsible for much of the tech we use today. Check out this list of some of the most innovative, women-created tech — and if you feel inspired to learn the skills you need to create something yourself, check out our catalog of programming courses to learn how.
1. Personal Computers
Mary Wilkes became one of the first professional computer programmers after graduating from college in 1959. While working at MIT’s Digital Computer Group, she played a key role in the development of the Laboratory Instrument Computer (LINC), which many recognize as the world’s first personal computer (or at least the foundation for personal computers).
Mary Wilkes wrote the code for the LINC’s operating system, system software, console prototype, and more. “We were a bunch of nerds,” she told The New York Times Magazine, describing the LINC team. “We were a bunch of geeks. We dressed like geeks. I was completely accepted by the men in my group.” (After a successful tech career, Mary went on to graduate from Harvard Law School and launch a new career as a lawyer, arbitrator, and eventual judge — NBD.)
2. Computer Programs
Ada Lovelace was a countess, the daughter of a famous poet, and a pioneer of computing and telecommunications during the Industrial Revolution. She’s known as the first computer programmer for her translation (and expansion) of a French description of the Analytical Engine, which later became known as the first computer program. Along with her technical prowess, Ada was also hailed as a visionary because she was one of the first people to apply computing outside of mathematics.
3. Modern Computers
During WWII, the U.S. Army commissioned six women to program a giant computer designed to improve military calculations: The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC). These women — Betty Holberton, Jean Jennings Bartik, Kay McNulty, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Ruth Licterman, and Frances Bilas Spence — came to be known as the ENIAC Six. While their contributions were overshadowed at the time, their work laid the foundation for the development of the UNIVAC, the world’s first mass-produced computer.
Beyond programming the ENIAC, their collective accomplishments also include contributing to the development of the UNIVAC, the COBOL and FORTRAN programming languages, and the development of the hydrogen bomb.
4. Word Processing Software
Before there was Google Docs and Microsoft Word, technologist Evelyn Berezin developed one of the first sophisticated computerized reservations systems for United Airlines in 1961. Then, she went on to found the company that produced the first computerized word processor with text recording and playback and cut and paste features, called the Data Secretary.
5. Inverse Document Frequency (IDF)
Karen Spärck Jones was a British computer scientist who revolutionized human-computer interaction. While looking for ways to improve how humans and computers communicate, she recognized that computers struggled with understanding words with several meanings. So, she used statistics and linguistics to create the inverse document frequency (IDF), which helped teach computers how to understand the relationships between words. This same formula is used in many modern search engines (like Google). Her work also helped pave the way for natural language processing and even buzzy technology like the AI chatbot ChatGPT.
6. Atari Games
Remember the old school gaming console Atari? The first Atari VCS games were developed by Carol Shaw. After graduating from UC Berkeley with multiple degrees in engineering and computer science, she became one of the first woman Game Developers in 1978. Along with classics like 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe and Video Checkers, she also created Activision’s River Raid in 1982.
What’s more: whereas today’s Game Developers usually focus on one part of development (like design or asset creation), Carol built most of her games herself! “In those days, one person would do the entire game: the design, the programming, the graphics and sound,” she told Vintage Computing. “Then you’d get feedback from the other designers, but basically one person did the whole thing.”
7. GPS, Wi-Fi & Bluetooth
Hedy Lamarr was an actress who starred in movies in the mid-1900s. When she wasn’t captivating audiences on film, she was doing scientific experiments and research to kill time between shoots. During WWII, Hedy developed a groundbreaking new communication system and method of transmitting and receiving radio signals that was designed to help guide military torpedoes. Later, this technology was used to build GPS, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth.
8. Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs)
Adele Goldberg discovered a passion for computer science after landing an internship with IBM in college. She taught herself to code and earned several postgraduate degrees in Information Science. After working her way up to a leadership position at Xerox, she led the team that developed the Smalltalk-80 programming language that was used to create the first GUIs. Later, she shared her invention with Steve Jobs, and it ultimately helped inspire the creation of the Macintosh operating system and user interface.
9. Hybrid Car Batteries
Annie Easely was a programmer and rocket scientist for NASA. As one of the first Black women in her field, she helped develop more sustainable tech and paved the way for stellar voyages. After teaching herself to code with SOAP and FORTRAN, she studied alternative energies and helped inform the creation of hybrid car batteries in the 1970s. She also helped write the code for the Centaur, NASA’s rocket that’s been used to launch several spacecrafts over the past few decades.
10. Digital Matchmaking
In 1964, Joan Ball set the stage for online dating by creating St. James Computer Dating Service (later renamed Com-Pat, short for Computerized Compatibility). Her innovative tech ran punch cards filled out by participants through a computer to find potential matches. Remember: This was well before dating apps like Tinder and even social networking. Joan Ball was one of the first people to combat the stereotypes around computerized dating services.
Want to learn more about inspiring women technologists? Check out our blog posts about some of the leading women in tech.