SPOTLIGHT: Computers: the Forgotten Women in Science

human computers

Computers, today we think of computers as electronic devices that can be used to store, process, and share information.  They can come in the form of tablets, laptops, phones and desktop computers. We also tend to think of the computer programming industry as a male domain. This wasn’t always the case though.

The History

When the computer programming industry was in its infancy “computer” was a job title.  “Computers” were people that would perform the repetitive calculations requested to compute things, such as navigational tables, tidal charts and ballistics calculations.  While men did originally perform this role, during the Second World War women filled these roles. Thus they played a critical role in STEM industries required for the war efforts and technological development thereafter.  Women in these roles often needed to engineer hardware and had degrees in mathematics.

Industries that used these “computers” starting in the Second World War included the Army and NASA.  Thus, despite their lack of inclusion in the celebrated history of STEM, women have played a critical role in our scientific and technological development.

Famous women in STEM

Ada Lovelace – the women who invented the science of computer programming between 1842 and 1843.

Barbara “Barby” Canright – she joined California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1939.  Her job was to calculate how many rockets and what kind of propellants were needed to propel a spacecraft.  This was crucial after the attack on Pearl Harbour.

Nicole-Reine Lepaute – A scientist that aided Alexis-Claude Clairant and Joseph-Jerome de Lalande in the prediction of Halley’s Comet returning to Earth in 1757.

Katherine Johnson – a US mathematician whose calculations of orbital mechanics were critical to NASA putting an astronaut into orbit around Earth and putting a man on the Moon.

Marie Curie – Along with her husband, she conducted groundbreaking research on radioactive decay.  She was also the first women to receive 2 Nobel prizes.

Rosalind Franklin – a British Biophysicist whose data was critical to Crick and Watson’s discovery of DNA

Chien-Shiung Wu – a Chinese born physicist that joined the Manhattan Project in the 1940s and participated in the development of the atom bomb.

Lise Meitner – Austrian born nuclear physicist whose work in 1938 led to the discovery of nuclear fission, therefore laid the groundwork for the atomic bomb.

Want to know about more women in STEM? Check out SPOTLIGHT: 5 Amazing Women in STEM

References:

https://www.nasa.gov/feature/when-the-computer-wore-a-skirt-langley-s-computers-1935-1970

https://www.history.com/news/human-computers-women-at-nasa

https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-age-of-female-computers

https://www.sfu.ca/wwest/WWEST_blog/herstory-of-the-tech-industry-when-women-were-computers.html

https://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/k-4/stories/nasa-knows/who-is-katherine-johnson-k4

https://www.nasa.gov/content/dorothy-vaughan-biography

https://www.biography.com/scholar/ada-lovelace

https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/13/130519-women-scientists-overlooked-dna-history-science

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