10 geek girls that changed the world

A female look to the world of technology

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

Welcome back, fellow readers! Today, 8th of March, it’s a beautiful day, and I want to celebrate it listing for you 10 “nerd” women that changed the story of technology, giving us the best invetions and ideas that have given shape to our present.

Without further words, here we are: 10 geek girls that changed the world.

1. Ada Lovelace Byron — The mother of computers

Ada Lovelace Byron portrait (Image source)

If Alan Turing is considered the father of modern computers, well Ada Lovelace Byron is for sure the mother.

Born in 1815 from the famous poet George Gordon Byron, she is the only legitimate daughter of Byron and when she was just one year old, she was turned away from the mother. She wasn’t talented in poetry like his father, Lord Byron, but she developed a great passion for math and science in general.

When she was 17 years old, she met the man who changed her life: Charles Babbage a grumpy 42 years old man who was working to difference engine: a machine, very similar to a watch, capable of making calculations automatically. Basically you should insert numbers on one side and on the other you could see results of a sum or a subtraction, like a calculator.

Ada, who saw the various ideas of Babbage, guessed the potential of the Analytical Machine: not a simple calculator, but a symbolic machine capable of various applications. In her notes it was found also an algorithm that allows to calculate Bernoulli numbers and this gave her the title of “first world’s computer programmer”.

She died at the age of 37 years old and in 1979 United States’ Defence Department gave the name ADA to an efficient and agile programming language. You can find her story in the book by Walter Isaacson The innovators”.

2. Hedy Lamarr — The nerd fatale

Hedy Lamarr publicity photo for the film The Heavenly Body, 1944 (Image source)

The appellative of “femme fatale” fro Hedy Lamarr it’s a must. Born in 1914 in Vienna, she was an Hollywood actress and she co-conceived the frequency hopping spread spectrucm (fhss), a system which avoid radio interference. She was the first actress to interpret a nude scene in the film Ecstasy by Gustav Machatý. The film was censored and in some countries, removed from the markets. She acted in more than 30 films, among which “Comrade X” and “Boom Town” co-starring with Clark Gable.

But she is famous also because she invented a modulation system, with registered patent in 1942, for coding information to be transmitted over radio frequencies, which would have made it possible to remotely control torpedoes and naval vessels. Lamarr patented this system together with her friend, the composer George Antheil, immediately arousing the interest of secret services and military apparatuses, and laying the foundations not only for cryptography, but also for mobile telephony and wireless computer systems.

3. Karen Spärck Jones — The Google woman

Prof. Karen Spärck Jones, photographed in summer 2002 in front of the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory (Image source)

If now we have search engine, like Google, we should thank this woman. Born in Yorkshire, in United Kingdom, in 1935, from a british chemical teacher father and a Norwegian mother, she took a bachelor degree in Philosophy before to dedicate her entire life to Computer Science.

She married a computer scientist and in 1972 she published “A statistical interpretation of term specificity and its application in retrieval”, which introduce the concept of inverse document frequency. It’s basically one of the main components about algorithm classification to obtain a text from a document index automatically.

It was just a statistical theory, but in 1994 Mike Burrows, a bicycle designer from Norwich, England, used this theory to create the search engine Alta Vista.

Karen was an hi-tech feminist promoter, once she said:

I think it’s very important to get more women into computing. My slogan is: Computing is too important to be left to men.

4. Margaret Hamilton — The woman of the moon

Computer scientist Margaret Hamilton poses with the Apollo guidance software she and her team developed at MIT. Credit: Courtesy MIT Museum (Image source)

If Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, he should thank this woman and her whole team. Born in 1936, she was the director of Software Engineering Division of MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, which developed the on-board software for Apollo 11. Margaret’s team solved complications about the landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon, granting the mission success.

In 1986, Margaret Hamilton founded the Hamilton Technologies in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a company born to develop the Universal Systems Language (USL) based on the paradigm of Development Before the Fact (DBTF), for the design of softwares and systems.

For her work during preparation of Apollo 11 mission, Hamilton has been credited with popularizing the concept of software engineering.

We had to find a way and we did. Looking back, we were the luckiest people in the world; there was no choice but to be pioneers.

- Margaret Hamilton

5. Katherine Goble — The hidden figure

Katherine Johnson, also Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, 1983; see NASA bio (Image source)

Staying on the moon theme, another woman who changed space travels was Katherine Johnson, whose story was told in the film “Hidden figures” directed by Theodore Melfi and written by Melfi and Allison Schroeder.

Passed away on the 20th January 2020, Katherine was born in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs and already at an early age she was considered a mathematical genius. Graduated in high-school at the age of 14, she was noted by a teacher in her university, in West Virginia State University, who invited her to follow the hardest courses about analytical mathematics, designed just for her.

Assumed at NACA, then became NASA, she contributed to calculate the spatial trajectories for Alan Shepard mission, the first american man in the space, in 1959. She also took care of math calculations related to John Glenn’s orbit around the earth in 1962 and then she calculated trajectory of Apollo 11 in 1969.

Katherine Johnson is an example of how despite the aversions of a country (she was a black woman) tenacity and willpower can help you move forward in life and grab the success you deserve.

6. Helen Greiner — The Robo-mother

Helen Greiner speaks onstage during day one of TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2015 at Pier 70 on September 21, 2015 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch) (Image source)

Co-founder and president of iRobot Corporation, Helen contributed significantly to improve mechanical devices, which perform actions automatically or remotely driven, accessibility.

Initially the majority of iRobot invetions were just for military use, but thanks to ever decreasing costs of technology, the company started to enter in the consumer market of robotics. Greiner said that in a few years there will be a robot in every house which will do houseworks or babysitting.

Her objective is “making robots available for everyone”. In 2020 she became CEO of Tertill, a Boston startup which provides robots for gardening.

7. Dorothy Vaughan — The Fortran Mistress

Dorothy Vaughan is one of NASA’s Hidden Figures. She was the first black female Supervisor, working on the IBM machine. Inducted into the Langley Hall of Honor, June 1, 2017. (Image source)

Maybe most of you don’t know FORTRAN (or formula translation) as a programming language or never used it to program some mathematical operations. Well, this is not the case of Dorothy Vaughan, an American mathematician and human computer who worked at NASA, during the same years of Katherine Goble.

During her 28-year career, Vaughan prepared for the introduction of machine computers in the early 1960s by teaching herself and her staff the programming language of Fortran, the first high-level programming language invented by John Backus for IBM in 1954, released commercially in 1957.

As a black woman, Dorothy encountered several difficulties in her work, but thanks to her work and dedication, the NASA had the opportunity to use the IBM 7090 DPS (Data Processing System), to calculate the orbit around the earth that it should have made by John Glenn in 1962.

8. Adele Goldberg — The queen of software

Adele Goldberg speaking at PyCon 2007. (Image source)

Born in Ohio in 1945, took a degree in mathematics then a master in computer science, Adele Goldberg is one of the most known and respected person in software industry. She worked for many years in the research centre Xerox and she is co-founder of ParcPlace-Digitalk, a company that develops applications for corporate software’s developers.

She was also president of Acm (Association for Computing Machinery) and she received many awards for the contrbution to information technology. With Alan Kay she developed SmallTalk, an object-oriented, dynamically typed reflective programming language.

Her motto is:

Don’t ask yourself if you can do something, but how to do it

9. Arianna Menciassi — The geek girl from Tuscany

Intervento di Arianna Menciassi | Women&Technologies: e-Health (Edizione 2011) (Image source)

A physics degree in 1995, in the same year she started to working in the Research Center in Microengineering of the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa, where she started her path as PhD on manipulation techniques of mechanical and biological micro objects, Arianna is one of the Italian and above all female pride in the field of bio-medical robotics.

In 2001, for the research in Pisa, she won the Best Manipulation Paper Award at the International Robotics and Automation Conference (Seoul, South Korea). Her work is mainly focused on biomedical and surgical robotics, microsystem technologies and the application of micro and nano-technologies to diagnostics and therapy. In 2020 Arianna with her team won the “KUKA Innovation Award 2020 — Medical Robotics Challenge”.

She said:

The world of traditional robotics, therefore industrial robotics, is very masculine, but biomedical robotics, and biomedical engineering in general, are a mixed world. This is because the biomedical aspect of robotics attracts a lot of women, who think about the utility and social value of what they do perhaps more than men

10. Samantha Cristoforetti — The space walker

European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, attired in her blue flight suit. (Image source)

Born in Milan, in 1977, then a degree in mechanical engineering in Munich, Samantha is one the italian symbols. She was the first italian woman (the third in Europe) to go in the space.

During the mission she conducted human physiology experiments (from the University of Ferrara), biological analyzes (wearable monitoring studied by the Don Carlo Gnocchi Onlus Foundation) and experimented with the printing of 3D objects in weightlessness, designed by the Italian companies Altran and Thales Alesia Space.

Samantha speaks fluently 5 languages: Italian, French, Russian, English and German. In 2022 she will leave the Earth again to come back on the International Space Station to make other experiments about reproductions of metal parts thanks to spatial 3D printers.

All these women, all their tenacity, all their desire to change and improve the world, must remind us that we are all equal in the world, no matter the gender. We should remind also that if we really want to make a difference, we need to be fully committed to ourselves. And the first commitment we should make is to respect all people, regardless of gender or skin color.
Happy women’s day, fellow readers.


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