The computers

Initially, computers were women.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California hired women as computers since 1936.

Jet propulsion laboratory
Jet propulsion laboratory.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Jet propulsion laboratory
Jet propulsion laboratory, Computing building, 1955.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

They calculated the trajectory of a spacecraft based on the vehicle weight, lift capacity and the orbital dynamics of the planets.
Once the spacecraft is launched, they calculate its exact location, thanks to the signal its sends, along with other changing parameters (such as velocity, vehicle mass and the effect of gravity from nearby bodies)
They calculate also the launch windows, the fuel consumption and other details.

Source: When computer were human, by Ota Lutz, 2016, NASA.


ENIAC publicity photo
ENIAC publicity photo, 1946.
Source: Computer history museum. Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Archives

The military needed ENIAC for the calculation of ballistic tables. Those show the range of a particular gun, depending upon the type of shell that was fired, the charge of the propellant, the angle of elevation, and, in some cases, the meteorological conditions.

ENIAC scientists
The six “computers”, programmers of the ENIAC: Kay McNulty, Frances Bilas, Betty Jean Jennings, Elizabeth Snyder, Ruth Lichterman, and Marlyn Wescoff.
Source: Wikimedia commons

Adele Goldstine was the ENIAC’s first programmer and wrote the manual on its logical operation.
In 1946, she recruited and taught programming to the other women – the six “computers”: Kay McNulty, Frances Bilas, Betty Jean Jennings, Elizabeth Snyder, Ruth Lichterman, and Marlyn Wescoff.
They break down long equations into single operations that the computer could perform in sequence.

NASA’s Langley Research Center

Woman working at Langley
Woman working at NACA Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, 1943.
Image Credit: NASA Langley Research Center

The first human computers were split into an East Wing, for white women, and a West Wing, for black women.

The history of Langley’s West Wing black women computers is described in a book called “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterl, which has been made into a movie.
The most famous of them is probably Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson (born in 1918) a mathematician and astrophysist.

Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson
Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson at NASA, 1966.
Source: Wikimedia commons

Her work included calculating trajectories, launch windows and emergency return paths for Project Mercury spaceflights, including those of astronauts Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and John Glenn, the first American in orbit, and rendezevous paths for the Apollo lunar lander and command module on flights to the Moon.
Her calculations were also essential to the beginning of the Space Shuttle program, and she worked on plans for a mission to Mars.
The first American in orbit, John Glenn, insisted that the calculation of the computers were checked by her before the launch.

Source: Katherine Johnson Biography, by Margot Lee Shetterly

Dorothy Johnson Vaughan (1910 – 2008)

In 1949, Dorothy Vaughan was promoted to lead the group, making her the NACA’s first black supervisor, and one of the NACA’s few female supervisors. The Section Head title gave Dorothy rare Laboratory-wide visibility, and she collaborated with other well-known (white) computers like Vera Huckel and Sara Bullock on projects such as compiling a handbook for algebraic methods for calculating machines.

Source: Dorothy Vaughan Biography, by Margot Lee Shetterly

Mary Jackson (1921 – 2005)
Mary Jackson at Work NASA Langley
Mary Jackson at Work NASA Langley.
Source: NASA

For nearly two decades she enjoyed a productive engineering career, authoring or co-authoring a dozen or so research reports, most focused on the behavior of the boundary layer of air around airplanes. In 1979, she fills the open position of Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager. There, she worked hard to impact the hiring and promotion of the next generation of all of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers and scientists.

Source: Mary Jackson Biography, by Margot Lee Shetterly

Christine Darden

Christine Darden (born 1942, as Christine Mann) is an American mathematician, data analyst, and aeronautical engineer. During her 40-year career at NASA, she led an advisory team composed of representatives from industrial manufacturers and academic institutions, became the deputy program manager of The TU-144 Experiments Program, an element of NASA’s High Speed Research Program; and, in 1999, she was appointed as the director in the Program Management Office of the Aerospace Performing Center where she was responsible for Langley research in air traffic management and other aeronautics programs managed at other NASA Centers. Darden also served as technical consultant on numerous government and private projects, and she is the author of more than 50 publications in the field of high lift wing design in supersonic flow, flap design, sonic boom prediction, and sonic boom minimization.

Source: Standing on the Shoulders of a Computer, by Denise Lineberry

Grace Murray Hopper (1906 – 1992)

Grace Murray Hopper
Grace Murray Hopper

In 1944, a military mathematician called Grace Murray Hopper graduated first in her class and started working on a computer called Mark 1.
In 1949, she joins the team developing the UNIVAC 1 (general purpose computer). And makes the first compiler, called A-0, operational in 1952. A compiler translates human readable instructions into machine language.

In 1954 Grace Hopper was named first director of automatic programming, and her department released some of the first compiler-based programming languages, including MATH-MATIC and FLOW-MATIC. FLOW-MATIC is known as the first business oriented programming language, by using more “English like” expressions. FLOW-MATIC is extended later to make COBOL, still used today.

Before Flow-matic: conventional computer code
Before Flow-matic: conventional computer code.
Source: Introducing a New Language for Automatic Programming Univac Flow-Matic, 1957 (PDF) ©Computer History Museum
Flow-matic code, by Grace Murray Hopper
Flow-matic code, by Grace Murray Hopper.
Source: Introducing a New Language for Automatic Programming Univac Flow-Matic, 1957 (PDF) ©Computer History Museum

Kateryna Yushchenko (1919 – 2001)

Kateryna Yushchenko
Kateryna Yushchenko.
Source: Wikimedia commons

In the Soviet Union, in 1955, independently of the development made in the US, Kateryna Yushchenko created the Address programming language, just over the binary (machin) language, for the first programmable computer of the Soviet Union. The Address language was widely used in the Soviet Union for more than 20 years.

Kathleen Booth

Kathleen Booth
Kathleen Booth.
Source: Centre for Computing History of Cambridge

One of the first assembly language was written by Kathleen Booth in 1955, for her husband’s computer called ARC. Assembly language is an archaic form of programming language, directly above the binary machine language.

Lois Haibt

Lois Haibt
Lois Haibt

Lois Haibt contributed to the conception of a well-known mathematical programming language called FORTRAN (1954).

Adele Goldberg (1945 – …)

Adele Goldberg
Adele Goldberg

Adele Goldberg, Alan Kay, and others developed Smalltalk-80, which introduced a programming environment of overlapping windows on graphic display screens. It became the basis for graphical user interfaces, replacing the earlier command line systems.


Smalltalk was developed at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) under the guidance of Alan Kay, who was inspired by Simula, the world’s first object-oriented program. In 1973, Adele Goldberg joined Kay’s team at PARC and played a significant role in the development of Smalltalk and its pioneering concepts, such as a the model-view-controller (a key concept behind graphical user interfaces), a WYSIWYG editor, and an integrated development environment. In 1979 Goldberg gave Steve Jobs and his programmers a demo of Smalltalkand its GUI on a PARC Alto computer, which subsequently influenced the design of Apple’s Macintosh desktop. Smalltalk was first released outside of PARC in 1980 as Smalltalk-80 and has had a huge influence on many later languages including as Java, Objective-C, and Python.

Source: 9 programming languages and the women who created them, by Phil Johnson, 2015.

Margaret Hamilton (1936 – …)

Margaret Hamilton
Margaret Hamilton.
Source: Wikimedia commons

The lunar lander of mission Apollon 11 could have crashed on the moon if the program she designed hadn’t been able to manage the overload of data due to a failure in the radar.

Hamilton wrote of the incident  :
The computer (or rather the software in it) was smart enough to recognize that it was being asked to perform more tasks than it should be performing. It then sent out an alarm, which meant to the astronaut, I’m overloaded with more tasks than I should be doing at this time and I’m going to keep only the more important tasks; i.e., the ones needed for landing … Actually, the computer was programmed to do more than recognize error conditions. A complete set of recovery programs was incorporated into the software. The software’s action, in this case, was to eliminate lower priority tasks and re-establish the more important ones … If the computer hadn’t recognized this problem and taken recovery action, I doubt if Apollo 11 would have been the successful moon landing it was. Source: Wikipedia

Karen Spärck Jones FBA (1935 – 2007)

Karen Sparck Jones
Karen Sparck Jones.
Source: University of Cambridge

Karen Spärck Jones’ formula is called Tf-idf, which stands for “term frequency-inverse document frequency”
It determins the frequency of a word in a document, weighted down by the general frequency of the word in all available documents (excluding non relevant but frequent word such as “is, “of”, “that”…).
The word’s importance in the document determines its indexing, so its availability in search engine results.
Her formula underlies most modern search engines today.

Barbara Liskov (1939 – …)

Barbara Liskov
Barbara Liskov.
Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica. Courtesy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Barbara Liskov developed the CLU language in mid-1970s, which influenced many well-known languages, such as Java, Python, and C++, adopting one or more of its pioneering concepts.
Together with Jeannette Wing, she developed the Liskov substitution principle, which is one of the basic concept of object oriented programming, a methodology used in most computer languages today.

Liskov won the Turing Prize in 2008 (the Nobel prize equivalent for computing).

Radia Perlman (1951 – …)

Radia Perlman, 2009
Radia Perlman, 2009.
Source: Wikimedia commons

Radia Perlman invented the Spanning Tree Protocol in 1985, to ensure that there is no loops, when there are redundant paths in the network. This protocol is necessary to make internet work, otherwise, transmissions would be trapped in endless loops.
She has also done extensive and innovative research, particularly on encryption and networking.

Shafi Goldwasser (1958 – …)

Shafi Goldwasser
Shafi Goldwasser.
Source: Wikimedia commons

Shafi Goldwasser made important research on complexity theory, cryptography and computational number theory.

She is co-inventor of probabilistic encryption, which set up and achieved the gold standard for security for data encryption. She is also co-inventor of zero-knowledge proofs, which probabilistically and interactively demonstrate the validity of an assertion without conveying any additional knowledge, and are a key tool in the design of cryptographic protocols.

She received 2 times the Gödel Prize for her research on complexity theory, cryptography and computational number theory, and the invention of zero-knowledge proofs. She won the Turing Prize in 2012.

Anita Borg

Anita Borg
Anita Borg.
Source: Wikimedia commons

Anita Borg built a Unix-based operating system after her PhD, and developed and patented a method to optimize memory systems (1989). She has founded the organization Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology (1997) and cofounded Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (1994)

Mary Lou Jepsen

Mary Lou Jepsen
Mary Lou Jepsen.
Source: “For a Brain-Computer Interface that Actually Works, Are Holograms Our Only Hope?” by Kristen V. Brown

Mary Lou Jepsen designed and constructed the first holographic video system at the MIT Media Lab in 1989. Since then she led many projects around display screen innovation

More about Mary Lou Jepsen:

Frances Elizabeth Allen

Frances Elizabeth Allen
Frances Elizabeth Allen.
Source: Virginia Tech

Frances Elizabeth Allen’s pioneering compiler work culminated in algorithms and technologies that are the basis for the theory of program optimization today and are widely used throughout the industry.  She also programmed languages and security codes for the National Security Agency.

Frances Elizabeth Allen was the first female IBM Fellow and in 2006 became the first woman to win the Turing Award.

Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852)

Ada Lovelace is known as the first person to publish an algorithm intended to be executed by the Analytical Engine created by Charles Babbage.

Her work is available here (her notes are approximately at the third of the page):
Sketch of The Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage, by L. F. Menabrea of Turin, Officer of the Military Engineers, with notes upon the Memoir by the Translator Ada Augusta, Countess of Lovelace.


More inspiring women in computing on Wikipedia: Women in computing

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