Knowing the past can give a glimpse into what the future holds. That explains my interest in the history of tech. Interestingly, this exploration has led me to better appreciate women in tech and their contributions. In many books about technology I recently read, women were the main protagonists. This is not only a sign that our understanding of history has become more inclusive, but is also revealing in terms of the critical roles women played in bringing about the current technological revolution.
The First Computer Programmer – Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace stands at the very origins of computing – and is rightfully called the world’s first programmer. In the mid-nineteenth century, Ada created the first known description of the “analytical engine”, and its workings became the base for future mechanical computers. Not only was Ada ahead of her time, she also wrote the first general-purpose algorithms (or applications) that extended computer functionality beyond pure calculations. Over 100 years later, when Steve Jobs marketed the first Apple computer as the “bicycle for the mind”, he was building on the legacy of Ada Lovelace.
Not only was it a woman who ideated the first mechanical processor, women were actually called “Computers” for the longest time. Books such as “When Computers Were Human” and “The Glass Universe” describe how prior to the invention of silicon chips, people did all the complex mathematical, scientific calculations – first entirely by hand and later with early mechanical calculators. Computer teams comprising almost entirely of women made critical calculations for scientific and technological advancements, including NASA’s first space launch into orbit.
America’s First Female Cryptoanalyst – Elizabeth Smit
That’s not all. In books such as “The Woman Who Smashed Codes” and “Code Girls”, we found out just how much we owe scientists such as Elizabeth Smith and her colleagues for their invention of modern cryptology, which helped break enemy codes during World Wars I and II. While many books and a Hollywood blockbuster deservedly gave the credit to Alan Turing, he was standing on the shoulders of giants when he cracked the “Enigma” code.
Pioneer of CRISPR Gene-editing Technology – Jennifer Doudna
Speaking of codes, today we know that the DNA code lies at the base of human biology. The book “The Code Breaker” explores the story of Jennifer Doudna who pioneered the CRISPR gene-editing technology that is revolutionising modern science and medicine, and ushering in a new era in biotech. Thanks to it – cures for diseases that were recently considered fatal are already on the horizon, and we are only scratching the surface of what CRISPR and the future innovations it enable will bring.
These books and stories show the significance of women’s role in creating the three most fundamental technological paradigms that define the 21st century: Computing, Cryptology and Biotech. The fact that Singapore and Southeast Asia account for more women in tech than other parts of the world is indicative of this region’s future in the global economy.
First published in the IT Society Magazine from the Singapore Computer Society