Tech World Shaped by Women – 17 Hidden Heroines of Modern Tech

Photo of Nat Chrzanowska

Nat Chrzanowska

Mar 8, 2023 • 19 min read
Tech World Shaped by Women... hero

Who do you think of when talking about the real beginning of social media? Mark Zuckergebrg, or Pattie Maes? While contemplating most groundbreaking discoveries, we often only hear about visionary male leaders. In reality, many of the greatest minds behind these inventions were brilliant female innovators whose stories stay hidden.

Hard work, dedication, and brilliance often don’t get as much spotlight as they deserve. This is exactly what we’re trying to change with the Hidden Heroes initiative, for which we tell the stories of the passionate individuals behind the most innovative discoveries.

This month, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, we want to bring special attention to all of the female visionaries who have shaped the tech world we know today. It is thanks to their courage, unique visions, and disruptive ideas that our world is moving forward quicker than ever.

Today, we want to pay our tribute by telling their extraordinary stories.

Radia Perlman (1951–)

Radia_Perlman_2009

Areas of expertise: Computer Science

Known for: Invention of the Spanning Tree Protocol – the groundwork for smooth Internet operation

We take it for granted that our digital devices – from mobiles and computers to cars and other smart tech solutions – magically connect to a global network. Yet this would not be possible without Radia Perlman and her groundbreaking invention.

Radia developed the spanning-tree protocol (STP), which is the foundation of network bridge operation. Without it, the Internet would not function as we know it. She currently holds over 100 patents and was named “The Mother of the Internet”.

For her revolutionary inventions, Perlman was numerously honored with prestigious awards, including the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Data Communication and Lifetime Achievement awards. In 2015, Radia became a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

If you’d like to read more about Radia Perlman and her inventions, discover her story on “Hidden Heroes”: https://hiddenheroes.netguru.com/radia-perlman.

Pattie Maes (1961–)

pattie maes

Areas of expertise: Computer Science

Known for: Creating the beloved “If you like this book, you might also like this book” algorithm

Love using Netflix, Amazon, or Spotify for their spot-on recommendations? It was Pattie Maes who invented the “If you like this (...), you might also like this (...)” algorithm back in the ‘90s that’s now used (and loved) by many tech companies worldwide.

Pattie is an expert in intelligent interfaces, human–computer interaction, and ubiquitous computing. She also developed one of the world’s first social media platforms, which used peer-to-peer suggestions to recommend music.

Pattie’s work has been repeatedly acknowledged, including being one of Newsweek’s "100 people for the new century", becoming a member of the Cyber-Elite, and being titled the Global Leader for Tomorrow by the World Economic Forum. She was also honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Massachusetts Interactive Media Council.

Curious to learn more about Pattie? Check out her story on the “Hidden Heroes” page: https://hiddenheroes.netguru.com/pattie-maes

Gladys West (1930–)

Gladys West

Areas of expertise: Mathematics

Known for: Modeling Earth’s gravitational fields – crucial for the invention of GPS

Can you imagine finding a hidden cabin on your vacation without a smartphone’s navigation system? Well, thanks to Gladys West and her calculations, you don’t have to.

Gladys West was a brilliant mathematician who mapped the shape of Earth, modeling its gravitational fields.

Between the ‘70s and ‘80s, Gladys led a team of professionals who calculated what is now known as the “geoid” using the IBM Stretch 7073 computer. Her invention, along with atomic clocks and satellites, was the founding element of the Global Positioning System (GPS).

For her remarkable work, Gladys was recognized in an article by Forbes Magazine: “GPS Only Exists Because Of Two People: Albert Einstein And Gladys West”.

If you’d like to learn more about Gladys’ story, read our “Hidden Heroes” piece on her: https://hiddenheroes.netguru.com/gladys-west

Karen Spärck Jones (1935–2007)

Karen Spärck Jones

Areas of expertise: Computer Science, Information Retrieval, Natural Language Processing

Known for: Developing foundations for modern search engines

How many times has googling queries saved you at work or your personal life? Search engines have become an extension of our knowledge, but they wouldn’t be the same if not for Karen Spärck Jones.

Karen was the one who developed the concept of inverse document frequency (IDF), which is the foundation of most modern search engines.

In the 2019 “Overlooked” series by the New York Times, she was named “a pioneer of computer science for work combining statistics and linguistics, as well as an advocate for women in the field".

To acknowledge her amazing work, the British Computer Society created the Karen Spärck Jones Award in 2008– an award that honors outstanding achievements in the areas of information retrieval (IR) and natural language processing (NLP).

Sophie Wilson (1957–)

Sophie Wilson

Areas of expertise: Computer Science

Known for: Designing the BBC Micro and ARM microprocessors

Did you know that more than half of modern electronics run on ARM microprocessors that were designed by a female computer scientist, Sophie Wilson?

Sophie developed her first microcomputer during a break from her Cambridge studies. She then joined Acorn Computers, where she helped design the BBC Micro and ARM microprocessors. Her invention can be found in most personal electronics, such as mobile phones, tablets, digital TVs, and even video games.

In 2011, she was recognized in Maximum PC as number eight in "The 15 Most Important Women in Tech History”. Eight years later, she was named a Commander of the British Empire.

Grace Hopper (1906–1992)

Grace Hopper

Areas of expertise: Computer Science, Mathematics

Known for: Building the foundations of the COBOL programming language and making computers more human

Do you feel like talking to a computer resembles talking to a human more and more every day? This idea was first proposed and developed by Grace Hopper back during the ‘50s.

Grace invented the first linkers and was the one who developed the theory of machine-independent programming languages. Based on the theory, she was able to create the FLOW-MATIC language, which was the foundation of COBOL – a primary, high-level language that can still be found in use to this day.

Apart from being a brilliant mathematician and computer scientist, Hopper was a United States Navy rear admiral.

During the course of her career, Grace received 40 honorary degrees from different universities worldwide. In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Marie Van Brittan Brown (1922–1999)

Marie Van Brittan Brown

Areas of expertise: Medicine

Known for: Inventing the first video home-security system

Does your home security system protect your house when you’re out? Well, you can say your thanks to the visionary, Marie Van Brittan Brown, who invented the tech.

Marie was a nurse. Working long hours and living in a crime-infested neighborhood, she was looking for ways to protect her home from burglars. Together with her husband, an electrician, they came up with the idea of a video home-security system.

Their revolutionary concept was patented in 1969 and laid the groundwork for the security systems we still use today.

Evelyn Boyd Granville (1924–)

Evelyn Boyd Granville

Areas of expertise: Mathematics

Known for: Developing computer software that analyzes satellite orbits for the NASA space program

You’ve probably heard about the astronauts who made it to space during the Space Shuttle program, but did you know that it was women like Evelyn Boyd Granville who made it possible?

Evelyn's pioneering work during the dawn of the computer age was a crucial part of a number of space missions. Her dedication and complex manual calculations were fundamental to tracking the paths of vehicles in space on Project Vanguard and Project Mercury for NASA.

Evelyn Boyd Granville was also only the second African American female scientist to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics from an American university.

Erna Hoover (1926–)

Erna Hoover

Areas of expertise: Computer Science

Known for: Inventing a computerized telephone switching system

Have you ever thought about how easy it is to call any number in the world? It was Erna Hoover who helped make it so convenient.

Erna developed the first-ever computerized telephone switching system, which allows us to call other people without being served with broken signals and dropped calls.

Her invention revolutionized the communication sector by enabling more robust service during peak calling times.

For her work, she received one of the first computer software patents. In 2008, Erna was appointed a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame. She was also honored with the alumni achievement award at Wellesley College.

Margaret Hamilton (1936–)

Margaret Hamilton

Areas of expertise: Software Engineering, Computer Science

Known for: Developing the onboard flight software for NASA's Apollo program

Thanks to Margaret Hamilton and her onboard flight software, Apollo 11 safely landed humans on the Moon.

Margaret held the position of Software Engineering Division director at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory. She was responsible for building the onboard flight software for NASA's Apollo program. Her work made the Apollo 11 mission and the first Moon landing possible.

She also founded two software companies – Higher Order Software and Hamilton Technologies. In 2016, Margaret received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.

Marta Karczewicz (1970–)

Marta Karczewicz

Areas of expertise: Mathematics, Innovations

Known for: Inventing image and video codecs

How many videos do you watch daily on your social media feed? Our modern video experiences would not be the same if it wasn’t for Marta Karczewicz’s video codec.

Marta helped transform the video experience that we use at work, in education, within telemedicine, and in our social lives as well. She created and patented more than 700 breakthrough technologies with a total estimated market value of over $1 billion.

From video conferencing to social sharing and online streaming, we have a lot to thank her for.

Marta currently holds the position of the Vice President of Technology at Qualcomm Technologies, Inc.

Kateryna Yushchenko (1919–2001)

Kateryna Yushchenko

Areas of expertise: Computer Science

Known for: Creating one of the first high-level programming languages with an indirect address

While American scientists are credited for most of the high-level, pioneering programming languages, not many people know that one of the world's first was developed by a female computer and information research scientist – Kateryna Yushchenko.

Kateryna was a brilliant inventor behind one of the earliest high-level programming languages with an indirect address, called the “Address programming language”.

She was the first woman in the USSR to hold a doctorate in Physical and Mathematical Sciences in programming.

During the course of her career, Kateryna was honored with two USSR State Prizes, The USSR Council of Ministers Prize, The Order of Princess Olga, and The Academician Glushkov Prize.

Dorothy Vaughan (1910–2008)

Dorothy Vaughan

Areas of expertise: Mathematics, Computing

Known for: Supporting the Apollo 11 mission during the Moon landing

What is the first name that comes to your mind when thinking about the Moon landing? Neil Armstrong – the first person to walk on the Moon, or Dorothy Vaughan – a woman whose complex calculations helped make the mission possible?

Dorothy Vaughan was one of the original group of NASA’s “Human Computers”, supporting Neil Armstrong during the moon landing in the ’60s. She was a brilliant mathematician who specialized in computing and flight path calculation.

Dorothy held the position of the acting head of West Area Computers, which was a segregated unit that consisted of African American women. She was the first black supervisor at NACA and one of the very few female supervisors. Her team’s primary job was to make complex mathematical calculations by hand for the space program.

In 2019, Vaughan was honored with the Congressional Gold Medal. She was also featured in Margot Lee Shetterly's book Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, which was adapted as a biographical movie of the same name.

Hedy Lamarr (1914–2000)

Hedy Lamarr

Areas of expertise: Innovations

Known for: Inventing the frequency-hopping technology used in Bluetooth, GPS, and Wi-Fi

Phones, computers, cars, and even homes – they can all be smarter thanks to Bluetooth. Did you know that the technology wouldn’t exist if not for the Hollywood star, Hedy Lamarr?

Hedy was not only a popular actress, but she was also an inventor. For her frequency-hopping tech, she has been dubbed “The Mother of Wi-Fi”.

Together with George Antheil, they came up with a radio communication system that “hops” from one frequency to another so that the communication cannot be intercepted by unwanted parties. To this day, their invention is used in wireless tech, including Bluetooth and GPS.

Hedy was the first female inventor who was recognized with the Invention Convention’s Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award.

Elizabeth “Jake” Feinler (1931–)

Elizabeth “Jake” Feinler

Areas of expertise: Information Science

Known for: Inventing the naming authority for top-level domains

Have you ever wondered where the web suffixes like .gov, .edu, .org, and .com come from? The naming authority of the Internet was invented by a woman – Elizabeth “Jake” Feinler.

As the Internet grew, a team led by Elizabeth came up with the idea of the naming authority of the Internet. The group developed and managed the name registries of top-level domains.

Her collection of early Internet papers can still be found at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. For her merits and work in Internet development, she was honored with the Jonathan B. Postel Service Award in 2013.

Valerie Thomas (1943–)

Valerie Thomas

Areas of expertise: Data Science

Known for: Originating the illusion transmitter that “turns” 2D into 3D

What if we told you that the fact you can enjoy a 3D movie is all thanks to female scientist Valerie Thomas and her invention for NASA?

Valerie Thomas created the illusion transmitter, which lets you see two-dimensional images in three dimensions thanks to concave mirrors. She patented the tech in 1980.

Thomas was working for NASA’s Landsat program when she developed image processing systems and digital media formats, and became a specialist in Landsat data products.

Valerie’s work was acknowledged with many awards, including the NASA Equal Opportunity Medal and the Goddard Space Flight Center Award of Merit.

Katherine Johnson (1918–2020)

Katherine Johnson

Areas of expertise: Mathematics, Computing

Known for: One of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist

NASA’s hall of fame is filled with the names of astronauts who made it to space during the Space Shuttle program. Yet it was women like Katherine Johnson whose complex manual calculations made those missions possible.

Katherine’s calculation work was critical to the success of the Space Shuttle program. She was part of the team of “Human Computers” at NASA that calculated emergency return paths, launch windows, and trajectories for such programs as Project Mercury.

In 2015, President Barack Obama recognized Katherine with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Four years later, she received the Congressional Gold Medal from the United States Congress. She too was featured in Margot Lee Shetterly's book and the movie adaptation.

Hidden Heroines and Hidden Heroes create our world

These and many more visionary individuals deserve their stories to be heard by a larger crowd. The list is just a small piece of the bigger puzzle that moves our world forward, but I hope you found them as inspiring as I did.

If you’d like to read more stirring stories of the hidden heroes behind the biggest inventions of our times, I encourage you to take a look at our “Hidden Heroes” tribute project dedicated to unseen innovators: https://hiddenheroes.netguru.com/

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Nat Chrzanowska

Creative Producer at Netguru
A tribute to people who shaped technology  Authored by Steven Johnson     MEET HIDDEN HEROES

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