5 Female computing giants you’ve likely never heard of

Susan Kare

Susan Kare and the "happy mac"Susan Kare and the “Happy Mac”

Susan Kare might not be a household name, but she is inextricably linked to the world of personal computing. As one of the key iconographers of the original Apple Mac, many will be familiar with her work.

Susan Kare might not be a household name, but she is inextricably linked to the world of personal computing. As one of the key iconographers of the original Apple Mac, many will be familiar with her work.

Armed with degrees and a PhD in Fine Art from New York University, she moved to work in the Fine Arts Museums in San Francisco in the early 1980’s. After being recruited as the screen graphics and font designer within the Apple Inc design team in 1982, Kare created many of the interface elements of the original Apple Macintosh. 

One of the pioneers of pixel art, Kare’s most notable work includes icons for the first three iPods and the Happy Mac and the creation of the Chicago, Monaco and Geneva typefaces.

2. Dorothy Vaughan

Dorothy Vaughan

Born in 1910, Dorothy Vaughan was one of America’s foremost mathematicians and computer programmers, becoming the head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NACA), later part of NASA. 

After graduating from Wilberforce University, Vaughan became a maths teacher. During the Second World War, she began work as a ‘human computer’ within NACA’s West Area Computing unit. This unit of African American female mathematicians analysed data for aerospace engineers and solved complex computations. This data was crucial to the early US space program.

The subject of the 2016 film Hidden Figures, Vaughan had to work within a racially segregated workplace, including toilets and canteen facilities.  Despite this, Vaughan achieved promotion in 1949 to head the West Computing unit until 1958, when NACA was incorporated into NASA, a rare feat for a woman at the time. 

3. Margaret Hamilton

Margaret Hamilton standing next to the manuals she wrote

Margaret Hamilton was a software engineer on the Apollo 11 mission, which saw humans first set foot on the moon. Without her expertise, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins would not have been able to land safely, and create history. Hamilton led the Software Engineering Division of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Instrumentation Laboratory (now Draper Labs). NASA had issued a contract to MIT for the very first guidance and navigation system to guide the Apollo 11 craft.

At any point, moon landings can be aborted due to errors within computer programmes, so accuracy in the written code is crucial. Hamilton’s skill was tested under extreme pressure, when on July 20th 1969 as Aldrin and Armstrong approached their descent onto the moon, the software overrode a command to switch the flight computer’s priority system to a radar system. The override was announced by a ‘1202 alarm’, showing that the computer was dropping less important commands to focus on providing descent information to the crew.

Bugs within devices are well known, affecting users daily, whether on a mobile phone, desktop or computer game. To put Hamilton’s precision into perspective, not a single bug was found in any of the crewed Apollo missions. Her software went on to be used in further missions such as the Space Shuttle, and fly by wire digital systems in aircraft.

Hamilton was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama on November 22nd 2016, the highest civilian award in the United States.

4. Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr in Let's Live a Little 1948


Hedy Lamarr’s brilliant mind rivalled her stunning looks, enabling her to have a career as a successful Hollywood film star and the inventor of the precursor to Wifi.

Hedy Lamarr’s brilliant mind rivalled her stunning looks, enabling her to have a career as a successful Hollywood film star and the inventor of the precursor to Wifi.

Lamarr invented and patented frequency hopping technology along with her business partner George Antheil in 1942. The aim at the time was to block the German jamming of radio signals. This then provided a way of transmitting secret radio messages during the Second World War. During the next few decades, her original invention formed the basis for modern Wifi, GPS and Bluetooth technology.

Lamarr is the subject of a documentary, Bombshell, co-produced by Susan Sarandon, which was released in November 2017.

5. Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper At Yale

Another high-flying leader in the field of software development is Grace Hopper. After obtaining an MA and a PhD from Yale, an unusual achievement for a woman in 1934, Hopper became an associate professor of mathematics at Vassar.

After taking a leave of absence to join the US Navy Reserve during World War II in 1943, she was assigned to the Bureau of Ordinance Computation Project. Hopper became the third programmer of the world’s first large-scale computer, the Mark 1. 

Hopper then left and joined the Eckert-Mauchly Corporation, enabling businesses to provide computers that were programmer and application friendly. Due to her mathematical expertise, she mastered the UNIVAC I, the first large electronic computer. After observing the repetitive nature of programming, where commands needed to be repeatedly retyped  for every program, Hopper encouraged programmers to write them once, before placing them in a central, shared library of code. This simplified the system, and removed errors. Mnemonics were soon adopted, and changed into binary codes, executable by the computer. Thus Hopper had invented a program that translated symbolic maths codes into machine language. Once this had been accomplished, programmers could store codes on magnetic tape and re-call them when necessary. This was the first compiler.

After finding an actual moth inside a computer, she coined the phrase ‘debugging’ the computer.

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