Did you know that the first person to talk about ‘de-bugging’ a computer was Admiral Grace Hopper in the 1940s? Admiral Hopper was a pioneer of computer programming, and worked on Harvard’s Mark I computer, a five-ton, room-size machine. She used the term ‘de-bugging’ in a very literal way when she had to remove a moth from the machine. Hopper’s commitment to the idea of machine-independent programming languages led to the development of COBOL, an early programming language which is still in use today.
Admiral Hopper isn’t the only woman to have had an early influence on computer programming. In the 19th century, mathematician Ada Lovelace worked with Richard Babbage on his ‘Analytical Engine’. Ada’s notes on the possible applications for the Engine have led her to be described as the first computer programmer. Her notes were an important source for Alan Turing’s work on the first modern computers in the 1940s. Not bad for someone whose father was disappointed that she wasn’t a boy!
Another important contributor to the world of modern technology is Hedy Lamarr. She had an interesting dual career as an inventor and film star. During World War I, she and composer George Antheil patented a secret communications system for radio-controlling torpedoes which employed “frequency hopping” technology. This technology laid the foundations for everything from Wi-Fi to GPS. Without it, our smartphones would be much less useful.
Female inventors haven’t just been influential in computing and communications. Biophysicist Maria Telkes and architect Eleanor Raymond created the first 100 per cent solar powered house in 1947. Telkes invented a thermoelectric power generator to provide heat for Dover House, and worked with Raymond to develop the house’s wedge-shaped structure.
Some of the best inventions can be the result of an accident – Stephanie Kwolek created Kevlar when she was working on a material to create stronger tyres. She and her team kept producing a strange, cloudy solution which they threw away. Kwolek convinced them to weave the substance into a fibre, and created one of the strongest materials in the world which is now used to make lightweight bullet proof vests.
If you’re inspired by these innovative women, why not apply for one of our engineering or technology courses?
This year, we have three Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) bursaries, sponsored by Meridian Lightweight Technologies UK, to encourage more young women to consider a career in engineering. Find out more and apply.