To mark International Women’s Day 2021, we are examining the groups of pioneering women who honed their technical expertise in an era dominated by educated men. Together, from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, they helped shape the world as we know it.
Here is our selection of some extraordinary, female tech teams:
The Harvard Observatory Computers
Edward Charles Pickering was the Director of the Harvard Observatory from 1877 to 1919. In 1881, he began to doubt the competency of his staff as they started to become overwhelmed with the volume of data entering the observatory. Pickering was especially dissatisfied with his assistant. He took action by dismissing his assistant and replacing him with Williamina Fleming – his maid at the time.
Fleming was tasked with computing and copying the observatory’s data. She became so adept that she went on to manage a large team of female assistants, tasked with undertaking mathematical classifications.
Her achievements during her 34 years at the observatory were greatly significant. Fleming devised a system for classifying stars according to the amount of hydrogen in their spectra. To this day, it is known as the Pickering-Fleming system. She also became the Curator of Astronomical Photographs.
Fleming’s success led to an era of strong female influence at the Harvard Observatory. During Pickering’s 42 year tenure, 80 women were employed to compute and catalogue data.
The Women of ENIAC
The predecessor of the modern computer was the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (known as ENIAC). It was the first computer to run at electric speed, without being slowed down by mechanical elements.
Originally, ENIAC was intended to calculate artillery trajectories. As it was only unveiled in 1946, too late to help the war effort, ENIAC was used for nuclear fusion calculations. An army press release described it as, “A new machine that is expected to revolutionize the mathematics of engineering and change many of our industrial design methods.” It was 1,000 times faster at producing these complex calculations than similar electronical machines at the time.
ENIAC was built between 1943 and 1945. The impact of the Second World War meant that there was a shortage of men to program the machine. The army advertised for women to undertake this daunting task. They put together a team of six female mathematicians to begin operating ENIAC without the help of any tools such as programming language or operating systems.
After only six weeks of training to prepare them for their work with ENIAC, the women were told to “figure out how the machine works and then figure out how to program it.” Together, their work meant that human ‘computers’ were replaced with an automatic, super-efficient system, foreshadowing machine learning and AI.
NASA’s Human Computers
In the 1950s, when NASA was dominated by men, a gifted mathematician named Katherine Johnson joined the iconic organization.
After graduating from West Virginia State University, Johnson joined a team of women ‘human computers’ at NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in the Guidance and Navigation Department. They would calculate aeronautical trajectories, windows for launches and emergency return routes.
Johnson’s particular talent meant she became a key figure in NASA. In 1962, astronaut John Glenn was assigned to become the first US man to orbit the Earth. At this time, digital computers had been implemented to produce the calculations required to launch a mission. Despite this, Glenn refused to fly until all calculations had been verified by Johnson personally.
The achievements of Katherine Johnson and NASA’s female computing team have since been recognized in the 2016 film, Hidden Figures. Johnson was also awarded the Presidential Medal Of Freedom in 2015.
The women of the Harvard Observatory, ENIAC and NASA all achieved significant technical achievements and challenged the conventions of their respective eras. As we celebrate International Women’s Day this year, their accomplishments perfectly demonstrate 2021’s theme of #ChooseToChallenge.
Find out more about some of K2’s own women in tech, who we profiled for last year’s International Women’s Day. Here we profiled Constanze Gunnarsson (Director of Learning and Development for Europe), Momo Yamada (Learning and Development for APAC) and Giusy Chianese (Senior Sales Associate for K2 University).