by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London
(Updated from previous versions)
Women have played a gigantic role in the history of computing. Their ideas form the backbone to modern technology, though that has not always been obvious. Here is a gendered timeline of technology innovation to offset that.
825 Muslim scholar Al-Khwarizmi kicks it all off with a book on algorithms – recipes on how to do computation pulling together work of Indian mathematicians. Of course back then it’s people who do all the computation, as electronic computers won’t exist for another millennium.
1587 Mary, Queen of Scots loses her head because the English Queen, Elizabeth I, has a crack team of spies that are better at computer science than Mary’s are. They’ve read the Arab mathematician Al-Kindi’s book on the science of cryptography so they can read all Mary’s messages. More
1818 Mary Shelley writes the first science fiction novel on artificial life, Frankenstein. More
1827 Mary Web publishes the first ever Egyptian Mummy novel. Set in the future, in it she predicts a future with robot surgeons, AI lawyers and a version of the Internet. More
1842 Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage work on the analytical engine. Lovelace shows that the machine could be programmed to calculate a series of numbers called Bernoulli numbers, if Babbage can just get the machine built. He can’t. It’s still Babbage who gets most of the credit for the next hundred-plus years. More
1854 George Boole publishes his work on a logical system that remains obscure until the 1930s, when Claude Shannon discovers that Boolean logic can be electrically applied to create digital circuits.
1856 Statistician (and nurse) Florence Nightingale returns from the Crimean War and launches the subject of data visualisation to convince politicians that soldiers are dying in hospital because of poor sanitation. More
1912 Thomas Edison claims “woman is now centuries, ages, even epochs behind man”, the year after Marie Curie wins the second of her two Nobel prizes.
1927 Metropolis, a silent science fiction film, is released. Male scientists kidnap a woman and create a robotic version of her to trick people and destroy the world. The robotic Maria dances nude to ‘mesmerise’ the workers. The underlying assumptions are bleak: women with power should be replaced with docile robots, bodies are more important than brains, and working class men are at the whim of beautiful gyrating women. Could the future be more offensive?
1931 Mary Clem starts work as a human computer at Iowa State College. She invents the zero check as a way of checking for errors in algorithms human computers (the only kind at a time) are following.
1941 Hedy Lamarr, better know as a blockbuster Hollywood actress co-invents frequency hopping: communicating by constantly jumping from one frequency to another. This idea underlies much of today’s mobile technology. More
1943 Thomas Watson, the CEO of IBM, announces that he thinks: “there is a world market for maybe 5 computers”. It’s hard to believe just how wrong he was!
1945 Grace Murray Hopper and her associates are hard at work on an early computer called Mark I when a moth causes the circuit to malfunction. Hopper (later made an admiral) refers to this as ‘debugging’ the circuit. She tapes the bug to her logbook. After this, computer malfunctions are referred to as ‘bugs’. Her achievements didn’t stop there: she develops the first compiler and one of the pioneering programming languages. More
1946 The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer is the world’s first general purpose electronic computer. The main six programmers, all highly skilled mathematicians, were women. They were seen to be more capable programmers because it was considered too repetitive for men and as a result it was labelled ‘sub-professional’ work. Once more men realised that it was interesting and fun, programming was re- classed as ‘professional’, the salaries became higher, and men become dominant in the field.
1949 A Popular Mechanics magazine article predicts that the computers of the future might weigh “as little as” 1.5 tonnes each. That’s over 10,000 iPhones!
1958 Daphne Oram, a pioneer of electronic music, co-founds the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, responsible for the soundscapes behind hundreds of tv and radio programmes. She suggests the idea of spatial sound where
sounds are in specific places. More
1967 The original series of TV show Star Trek includes an episode where mad ruler Harry Mudd runs a planet full of identical female androids who are ‘fully functional’ at physical pleasure to tend to his whims. But that’s not the end of the pleasure bots in this timeline…
1972 Karen Spärck Jones publishes a paper describing a new way to pick out the most important documents when doing searches. Twenty years later, once the web is up and running, the idea comes of age. It’s now used by most search engines to rank their results.
1972 Ira Levin’s book ‘The Stepford Wives’ is published. A group of suburban husbands kill their successful wives and create look-alike robots to serve as docile housewives. It’s made into a film in 1975. Sounds like those men were feeling a bit threatened.
1979 The US Department of Defence introduces a new programming language called Ada after Ada Lovelace.
1982 The film Blade Runner is released. Both men and women are robots but oddly there are no male robots modelled as ‘basic pleasure units’. Can’t you guys think of anything else?
1984 Technology anthropologist Lucy Suchman draws on social sciences research to overturn the current computer science thinking on how best to design interactive gadgets that are easy to use. She goes on to win the Benjamin Franklin Medal, one of the oldest and most prestigious science awards in the world.
1985 In the film Weird Science, two teenage supergeeks hack into the government’s mainframe and instead of using their knowledge and skills to do something really cool…they create the perfect woman. Yawn. Not again.
1985 Sophie Wilson designs the instruction set for the first ARM RISC chip creating a chip that is both faster and uses less energy than traditional designs: just what you need for mobile gadgets. This chip family go on to power 95% of all smartphones. More
1988 Ingrid Daubechies comes up with a practical way to use ‘wavelets’, mathematical tools that when drawn are wave-like. This opens up new powerful ways to store images in far less memory, make images sharper,
and much, much more. More
1995 Angelina Jolie stars as the hacker Acid Burn in the film Hackers, proving once and for all that women can play the part of the technologically competent in films.
1995 Ming Lin co-invents algorithms for tracking moving objects and detecting collisions based on the idea of bounding them with boxes. They are used widely in games and computer-aided design software.
2004 A new version of The Stepford Wives is released starring Nicole Kidman. It flops at the box office and is panned by reviewers. Finally! Let’s hope they don’t attempt to remake this movie again.
2005 The president of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers, says that women have less “innate” or “natural” ability than men in science. This ridiculous remark causes uproar and Summers leaves his position in the wake of a no-confidence vote from Harvard faculty.
2006 Fran Allen is the first woman to win the Turing Award, which is considered the Nobel Prize of computer science, for work dating back to the 1950s. Allen says that she hopes that her award gives more “opportunities for women in science, computing and engineering”. More
2006 Torchwood’s technical expert Toshiko Sato (Torchwood is the organisation protecting the Earth from alien invasion in the BBC’s cult TV series) is not only a woman but also a quiet, highly intelligent computer genius. Fiction catches up with reality at last.
2006 Jeannette Wing promotes the idea of computational thinking as the key problem solving skill set of computer scientists. It is now taught in schools across the world.
2008 Barbara Liskov wins the Turing Award for her work in the design of programming languages and object-oriented programming. This happens 40 years after she becomes the first woman in the US to be awarded a PhD in computer science. More
2009 Wendy Hall is made a Dame Commander of the British Empire for her pioneering work on hypermedia and web science. More
2011 Kimberly Bryant, an electrical engineer and computer scientist founds Black Girls Code to encourage and support more African-American girls to learn to code. Thousands of girls have been trained. More
2012 Shafi Goldwasser wins the Turing Award. She co-invented zero knowledge proofs: a way to show that a claim being made is true without giving away any more information. This is important in cryptography to ensure people are honest without giving up privacy. More
2012 Ursula Martin is awarded a CBE for services to Computer Science. She was the first female Professor of Computer Science in the UK focussing on theoretical Computer Science and Formal Methods.
2015 Sameena Shah’s AI driven fake news detection and verification system goes live giving Reuters an advantage of several years over competitors. More
2016 Hidden Figures, the film about Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, the female African-American mathematicians and programmers who worked for NASA supporting the space programme released. More
2018 Gladys West is inducted into the US Air Force Hall of Fame for her central role in the development of satellite remote sensing and GPS. Her work directly helps us all. More
It is of course important to remember that men occasionally helped too! The best computer science and innovation arise when the best people of whatever gender, culture, sexuality, ethnicity and background, disabled or otherwise, work together.
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EPSRC supports this blog through research grant EP/W033615/1.