Ada Lovelace Day

In Web/Tech
March 24, 2009

I’ve already written an article for today about Ada Lovelace Day and how important it is (and also how heinous The Big Bang Theory sitcom is – a message I really feel passionately about getting out to the public).

But I realise that what I wrote doesn’t really meet the brief of writing about a woman in technology whom I admire, although I name a few there. While researching and thinking about that article I did a lot of research and turned up women working in fields I’d always unconsciously thought of as total male bastions. It occurred to me that part of the problem is the technology isn’t really a personality-driven industry. Apple stock may rise and fall with Steve Jobs’ health, and Sid Meier certainly wants us to know about his games, but I found I couldn’t name the creators of some of my favourite games or gadgets. I just knew them by the product brand. There really aren’t so many ‘tech idols’ or ‘celebrity programmers’.

Added to that, technology is by its nature a collaborative field. In conversation recently, I found myself describing computers as the cathedrals of our times: everyone can have moments of wonder about them, because no single person could ever create a device that does what these astonishing boxes do. What we do together outweighs what we can ever do alone. So yeah, I don’t know the names of all the people who had the precise insights that led to the thin-screen monitor I’m looking at right now. Or the development of the USB I use to plug my iPod into my MacBook. Or any of those thousands of tiny innovations.

But in that spirit, I want to single out a couple of names of women who invented systems that have invisibly revolutionised our lives. I wish I had the specialised skill to give a very detailed explanation of what they did, but I am instead relying on information gleaned from the internet, another collective human enterprise.

Erna Schneider Hoover invented a computerised telephone exchange system whose basic principles are still in use today. Her invention  means that our lives aren’t constantly filled with dropped calls and false busy-signals whenever we try to use a telephone line. Which, since you’re reading this on the internet, is right now. Oh, and she also has a BA in Medieval History and a PhD in Philosophy. And dude, if you think a modern woman can’t have it all… she has four grandchildren and her first patent application was made while she was on maternity leave.

And for a more recent heroine of innovation, Shafi Goldwasser has twice won the Godel Prize for theoretical computer science. She is a pioneer in the field of online security working at MIT and her work on digital signatures is part of what allows modern banking systems to function. And with a name like that, she is of course also my homegirl.

It’s been amazing to do the research for this project. I really didn’t know how many women there were doing wonderful work in technology. Roll on next year’s Ada Lovelace Day!

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