3 March 2020

Who Changed the World? … Girls!

Women have been impacting and transforming the world since the beginning!

Yet everything we have been taught has told us that “man did this, and man did that”. And so, it has been assumed that men are the only ones making a difference.

It seems to me that what has been missed out in that sentence is “kind” at the end of the word “man”.

It wasn’t until recently, when I was listening to Sandi Toksvig speech at the IET’s Young Women Engineer Awards that I realised the amount of incredible feats and innovations women have achieved over the ages. And the lack of recognition that goes with them.

Today however, I am going to focus on just 10 amazing women who have changed the world we live in.

The first woman I would like to talk about is someone who wasn’t recognised for her contributions to the world of technology until half a century after her death. I am talking about…

Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852) [1]

Source: Wikipedia

Ada was a gifted mathematician and was fascinated by the ideas and inventions created by Charles Babbage. One idea and design he created was for an analytical engine, designed to handle more complex calculations. This idea had been published in the Swiss Journal by an Italian engineer, Luigi Federico Menabrea and Babbage had asked Ada to translate. Not only did she translate this article, but she also added her thoughts and ideas on the machine which happened to be three times longer than the article.

In her mind, she thought that codes could be created for the device in order for it to handle letters and symbols along with numbers. She also hypothesized a method for the engine to repeat a series of instructions, a process known today by computer programmers as looping. Ada also put forward alternative forward-thinking concepts in the article. It is because of her work that Ada is considered to be the first computer programmer. She once said:

“I believe myself to possess a most singular combination of qualities exactly fitted to make me preeminently a discoverer of the hidden realities of nature.”

Katharine Burr Blodgett (1898 – 1979) [2]

Source: Wikipedia

Katherine was the 1st woman to be awarded a PhD in physics from the University of Cambridge, in 1926. However, her achievements are more than just this as she is the person to have invented “invisible” or non-reflective glass while working at General Electric.

During the World Wars, Katharine helped advance military technology, using her research in mono-molecular coating by creating more effective smokescreens to allow soldiers to cover better their advance or retreats.

On top of all this, her research and advancements had a massive impact on the modern world, leading to the development of hydrophobic coatings for almost any item imaginable:

  • Non-scratch camera lenses and glasses,
  • better telescope lenses,
  • non-reflective store windows,
  • and weather balloon technology to name a few.

Maria Telkes (1900 – 1995) [3]

Source: Wikipedia

Maria began solar energy research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is a founder of solar thermal storage systems, securing her the nickname “the Sun Queen”.

She was a fruitful inventor of thermal devices including miniature desalination units (using solar power and condensation to collect portable water); saving the lives of torpedoed sailors and downed airmen during WWII.

“Sunlight will be used as a source of energy sooner or later. Why wait?”

Grace Hopper (1906 – 1992) [4]

Source: Wikipedia

Grace is perceived as the mother of computing! When she joined the U.S. Navy during World War II, she was assigned to program and develop the Mark I computer, the 1st Computer. After the war Grace remained as a reserve officer with the Navy but also became a research fellow at Harvard and worked with the MARK II and III computers. It was at Harvard where she discovered a moth which had shorted out the MARK II computer. It was at this point where she popularised the term “Computer Bug”. Even though she had a decorated career, she still had to constantly prove herself. She once said:

“If you do something once, people will call it an accident. If you do it twice, they call it a coincidence. But do it a 3rd time and you’ve proven a natural law!”

Hedy Lamarr (1914 – 2000) [5]

Source: Wikipedia

Hedy is most famously known for being an actress during MGM’s “Golden Age” of cinema where she starred in films such as Lady of the Tropics, Boom Town and Samson and Delilah, with the likes of Clark Gable and Spencer Tracey. However, her passion was science and with her friend, the composer George Antgeil. They received a patent for an idea of a radio signalling device, or “Secret Communications System” which was an early technique for spread spectrum communication. Hedy wasn’t recognised for her communications invention until 1997 as until then this technology wasn’t understood but is the key to many wireless communications we use today.

“I can excuse everything but boredom. Boring people don’t have to stay that way.”

Katherine Johnson (1918 – 2020) [4]

Source: Wikipedia

If you have watched Hidden Figures, then you should know what Katherine has accomplished. If not, let’s just say that Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for man” would not have happened! Katherine was in fact the person who physically performed the NASA calculations that made the manned space missions of the early 1960s as well as the 1969 moon landing possible. Even John Glenn, the astronaut put all his faith in Katherine requesting her to re-do all the calculations that were generated by the electronic computer before embarking on his 1962 orbit around earth.

“Everything was so new – the whole idea of going into space was new and daring. There were no textbooks, so we had to write them.”

Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958) [6]

Source: Wikipedia

Albeit the discovery of the DNA double helix is often attributed to James Watson and Francis Crick, who in 1962, won the Nobel Prize for physiology or Medicine for it.

It was in fact not theirs to claim!

It was in fact Rosalind Franklin, a British biophysicist, who was the first person to capture a photographic image while observing molecules using x-ray diffraction. However, without her permission, an estranged male colleague presented the photograph to competitors Watson and Crick, who stole the credit as their own. Either way, to her:

“Science, gives a partial explanation for life. In so far as it goes, it is based on fact, experience and experiment.”

Stephanie Kwolek (1923 – 2014) [7]

Source: Wikipedia

Stephanie was an organic chemist, who invented the immensely strong and robust fiber, commonly known as Kevlar.

Kevlar is 5 times stronger than steel and has been used in hundreds of products, including body armour and bullet proof vests, tyres, shoes, gloves, ropes, the list goes on.

“All sorts of things can happen when you are open to new ideas and playing around with things.”

Patricia Bath (1942 – 2019) [5]

Source: Wikipedia

Patricia wasn’t just the 1st African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute but was also the 1st African American female doctor to receive a medical patent.

The patent she received was for her invention of the well known Laserphaco Probe which harnesses laser technology. This device created a less painful and more precise treatment of cataracts helping restore the sight of individuals who had been blind for more than 30 years.

“Do not allow your mind to be imprisoned by majority thinking. Remember that the limits of science are not the limits of imagination.”

Radia Perlman (1951 – ) [4]

Source: Wikipedia

Radia is a network engineer and computer programmer and is most noted for her invention of the spanning-tree protocol (STP), which was fundamental to the operation of network bridges, which allows us to communicate between different computer platforms and is ultimately allowing our buildings, cities to link together. On top of this, she has made huge contributions to multiple areas of network design and standardisation, such as link-state routing protocols, which is one of the two main classes of routing protocols. However, most recently Radia has invented the TRILL protocol. She has combined all her knowledge of the years to correct some shortcomings of the spanning-trees by combining techniques from bridging and routing.

“The world would be a better place if more engineers, like me, hated technology. The stuff I design, if I’m successful, nobody will ever notice. Things will just work, and be self managing.”

Summary

These women paved the way for the world we live in today, a world we take for granted sometimes.

I feel that not only should these incredible women be acknowledged, but ALL the amazing women who have changed the course of our history through innovation and ingenuity should be discussed and taught. In fact all the achievements of people that have changed history should be taught regardless of gender, race, religion and so on. This is no longer a MANs world.

The world has been transformed by hu-MANs, for the good and the bad.

_

If you enjoyed learning about these fabulous women and would like to read more about what other have achieved and you would like to shout from the roof too. There are loads of brilliant books out there such as:

  • Ingenious Women from Tincture of Saffron to Flying Machines, by Deborah Jaffé
  • Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines, by Henrietta Heald
  • Incredible Women Inventors, by Sandra Braun

or even articles, just google it 😄

References

[1] – B. Editor, “Ada Lovelace Biography”, 02 04 2014. [Online]. Available: https://www.biography.com/scholar/ada-lovelace

[2] – Famous Scientists, “Katherine Burr Blodgett”, 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.famousscientists.org/katharine-burr-blodgett/

[3] – CPA Global, “Powering Change: Women in innovation & Creativity”, 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.cpaglobal.com/women-innovators/maria-telkes

[4] – Ayoga / IWD, “13 Women in STEM who changed the World”, 02 03 2016. [Online]. Available: https://www.internationalwomensday.com/Activity/7213/13-Women-in-STEM-Who-Changed-the-World

[5] – Barbra Hogg, “10 Famous Female Engineers and Inventors that changed the world”, 29 07 2019. [Online]. Available: https://letsgetsciencey.com/famous-female-engineers/

[6] – Scitable, “Rosalind Franklin: A Crucial Contribution”, 2014. [Online]. Available: https://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/rosalind-franklin-a-crucial-contribution-6538012/

[7] – Famous Scientists, “Stephanie Kwolek”, 21 06 2014. [Online]. Available: https://www.famousscientists.org/stephanie-kwolek/

Teaser Photo by Kevin Schmid on Unsplash

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