National Coding Week: The women who programmed the future

In 2019, despite women having paved the way for many of tech’s most brilliant innovations, women are still both underrepresented and underpaid in the tech industry. While steps are being made to make tech and STEM subjects more accessible options for young girls, through initiatives such as Girls Who Code and the Grace Hopper program, there is still a long way to go.

So, this National Coding Week, we decided to celebrate the women who have made history with their intelligence and pioneering spirit. Continue reading to learn about those women who are, too often, despite having made history, left out of the history books.

Annie Easley

Annie Easley was born in 1933 in Birmingham, Alabama. Originally training as a Pharmacist, she began her career as a human computer at NACA, soon to be known as NASA, performing complex mathematical calculations. When computers (machines, not humans) came about she became a programmer, learning languages like the Formula Translating System, or Fortran.

Most famously, she developed the software for the Centaur Rocket, which powered the first American space probe to land on an extra-terrestrial body. She worked for NASA for 34 years before retiring in 1989.

Margaret Hamilton

The first two men to land on the moon may never have got there if it weren’t for computer programmer Margaret Hamilton, who developed the sophisticated onboard flight software for the Apollo missions.

She worked tirelessly to perfect the software, preparing for emergency scenarios. As it turned out, no software bugs were ever known to have occurred during any of the Apollo missions. The code she wrote to develop the software formed books that reached to her height when she stood next to them.

Katie Bouman

Our most recent coder, Katie Bouman, led the creation of an algorithm that resulted in the first image of a supermassive black hole at the heart of the Messier 87 galaxy, 55 million light years from earth. Bouman’s experience is in Computer Science, however, she became involved in the project to create a clear picture of a black hole while undertaking a PhD in computer vision.

She said, “even though we had worked on this for years, I don’t think any of us expected we would get a ring that easily. We just expected a blob.”

Grace Hopper

A true pioneer, Grace Hopper was a computer scientist and U.S. Navy Rear Admiral, with a degree in mathematics from Vassar College, and a masters and PhD from Yale University. After teaching mathematics at Vassar, she left to join the war effort.

During her time in the Naval Reserve, she helped program the world’s first computer, the Mark 1. She did not retire until she was 79 years old and is credited with coining the terms “bug” and “de-bug” in relation to computer errors. The Cray XE6 “Hopper” supercomputer at the NERSC is named after her.

Mary Jackson

NASA’s first black female engineer, Mary Jackson, was an African American mathematician and aerospace engineer. In 34 years at NASA she earned the most senior engineering title available. However, having fought to overcome race related issues all her life, such as segregation in the early years at NASA (while it was still NACA), she was denied management-level positions.

As a result, she accepted a demotion to become a manager of the women’s program at NASA. In this role, she worked to support both the hiring and promotion of women in NASA, only retiring in 1985.

Katherine Johnson

Beginning her career as a human-computer, Katherine Johnson was a graduate at 18, graduating summa cum laude with degrees in both mathematics and French. Over a 35 year career, she calculated the orbital mechanics behind the NASA missions that launched crewed missions for the first time in U.S. history and co-authored 26 scientific papers.

In her time at NASA she instigated change regarding both racial segregation and sexism. She was the first woman in her division to put her name on a report, after a male colleague refused, as women were typically not allowed to put their names on reports despite whether they had done the majority of the work.

John Glenn, the astronaut who orbited the earth three times in 1962, refused to fly unless the computer’s calculations had been personally verified by Johnson.

Joan Clarke

Known for her work as a code-breaker at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, Joan Clarke was immortalised by Keira Knightley in the film The Imitation Game, which also focused on her relationship with Alan Turing.

She gained a double first in mathematics from the University of Cambridge (though she was denied a full degree) and in 1939 was recruited into the Government Code and Cypher School.

As a woman, she was initially assigned clerical work and paid significantly less than her male counterparts. However, within a few days her significant abilities were recognised, and she joined Turing and the other male mathematicians in decoding German messages, ultimately ending the war up to 2 years early.

If you want to read more about the women changing the future of tech today, take a look at our blog