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Women in technology: Smashing the glass ceiling

20th June 2019


Our Smashing the glass ceiling series was specially created to coincide with the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019. This week, we talk about women in technology, including Ada Lovelace, Katherine Johnson and Wendy Hall. Their calculations helped create early computers, launch rockets and build a system parallel to the World Wide Web.

Ada Lovelace: Creating the first computer algorithm

Ada Lovelace was born in 1815 to the poet Lord Byron and aristocrat Baroness Wentworth. Her mother was determined for her to be educated and paid for private tutors to teach her languages, science and mathematics.

At 17, she and her mother attended one of London’s many glamorous parties, hosted by mathematician Charles Babbage. At the time, he was Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, a post previously held by scientist Isaac Newton and later by Stephen Hawking. Babbage invited Ada to see his plans for a ’difference machine,’ an invention designed to eliminate mistakes in mathematics, similar to a calculator. Ada was fascinated.

A portrait of Ada Lovelace.
Ada Lovelace published the world’s first computer algorithm.

When engineer Luigi Menabrea attended and transcribed a lecture by Babbage in 1842, Ada translated his description from French into English and added her own notes. In Note G, she included an algorithm that would use Babbage’s ’Analytical Engine’ to generate a sequence known as the Bernoulli Numbers.

Unlike Babbage, she recognised that numbers could move beyond quantities. Numbers could represent symbols, such as musical notes. This leap marks the difference between Babbage’s theory for a calculator and Ada’s algorithm for a computer. Her algorithm is considered to be the first computer program.

Ada died in 1852 when she was just 36 but her legacy lives on. When wartime codebreaker Alan Turing wrote his groundbreaking papers on modern computer science, he referred back to Ada’s notes on Babbage’s machines. In the early 2000s, computer scientists named their test for Artificial Intelligence the Lovelace Test. While the Turing Test determines whether a machine can match the intelligence of a human’s, to pass the Lovelace Test a machine has to create something original without prior programming.

Katherine Johnson: The human computer of NASA

Katherine Johnson was born in 1918 in West Virginia. She finished primary school three years early and when she started college, aged 15, she chose to major in mathematics and French. At 18, she graduated with the highest grades in her class and was later invited to become the first black woman to study at West Virginia University.

A portrait of Katherine Johnson.
Katherine Johnson manually checked NASA computer calculations before spaceflights began.

While working as a maths teacher in 1952, she was told about a job opening that would change her life, and the course of the Space Race between America and the Soviet Union. NASA were hiring African-American mathematicians to manually perform complex mathematical calculations for their engineers. In 1953, she began work with the Flight Research Division.

Throughout her 33 years at NASA, she created the trajectory analysis for the first American in space, checked the calculations for the first American to orbit the earth and contributed to the team that put the first man on the moon. She also worked on early plans to send a rocket to Mars. She is a great woman behind great events.

In 2016, her life and work was celebrated in the book Hidden Figures by Mary Lee Shetterley, and film of the same name. Throughout her career, Katherine wrote 26 papers and co-authored the first textbook on space. In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal, the highest honour for an American citizen, by Barack Obama. She is 100-years-old.

Wendy Hall: Southampton’s first female Professor of Engineering

Not many people teach their first maths lesson aged six. Dame Wendy Hall did. “I was always good at maths. Maths came to me rather than me coming to maths,” she says. “When I was at school, I wanted to be a doctor, but my headmistress wouldn’t let me take the A-levels for that. She told me that medicine was not a career for women. That was in 1969. It was a very different world.”

Instead, her headmistress encouraged her to read maths. She did her undergraduate and doctorate at the University of Southampton, where she later became its first female Professor of Engineering. She is now Professor of Computer Science.

A portrait of Dame Wendy Hall.
Dame Wendy Hall, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton.

“At university, I hated computing. I still don’t like programming,” she says. “I didn’t have the right mindset for it, I’m a pure mathematician. I think in an abstract way but I think that’s part of my strength. I don’t think about how we’re going to do something, I just think about what might be possible.”

One of her big ideas was Microcosm, a hypermedia system that predates the world wide web. “There were lots of people involved doing the coding. I was the conductor of the orchestra.” In 1990, she met Tim Berners-Lee. “I first met him at a conference in Paris and we collaborated from that point on.”

Today, one of her big visions is for Southampton to be a UK centre for Artificial Intelligence. Starling’s Southampton office opened in May 2019 and AI is an important part of our vision as the app develops.

Wendy has become a role model for aspiring mathematicians, computer scientists and engineers. Her own role models are technology pioneer, businesswoman and philanthropist Dame Stephanie Shirley and computer scientist Karen Spärck Jones, responsible for technology that established the basis of search engines such as Google and voice recognition in smartphones. “Those women were trailblazers before me. They gave me the confidence to aim higher.”

To read more from this series on Smashing the glass ceiling, have a look at our posts on women in football and women in banking. Next week, we’ll look at women in security.

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