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Mothers of Innovation: 12 Women Engineers and Scientists to Know

March is Women's History Month in the United States, so get ready for a history lesson.

On the following pages and links below, you'll find a list of 12 women who have made significant contributions to engineering, science, technology, and mathematics. Many reading this will know some of the women named here, maybe even all, but many reading this will know none.

These women are mothers of innovation and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) exploration, whose work has influenced the course of humanity and who have pioneered new fields like Tesla, Moore, and other engineers, whom history also often forgets.

Click through and be sure to add your own women engineers and scientists of note in the comments field.

  1. Grace Murray Hopper: Mother of COBOL
  2. Betty Holberton: From ENIAC to minicomputers
  3. Ada Lovelace: First computer programmer
  4. Katherine Johnson: NASA “computers in skirts”
  5. Margaret Hamilton: Apollo 11 savior
  6. Jocelyn Bell Burnell: Radio pulsars
  7. Lise Meitner: Nuclear fission
  8. Emmy Noether: Noether's theorem
  9. Henrietta Swan Leavitt: Galaxy distance
  10. Hedy Lamar: Wireless pioneer
  11. Vera Rubin: Cluster galaxies
  12. Valentina Tereshkova: First woman in space

We cannot begin to think of a list of important women engineers without thinking of Grace Murray Hopper.

Born in New York in 1906, Hopper was the granddaughter of a senior civil engineer for the city of New York, and the daughter of a woman that wanted to study mathematics, but was held back by the social norms.

Hopper attended private schools, graduated from Vassar College, and received her master's degree in mathematics and physics, before becoming the first woman to receive a PhD in Mathematics from Yale University.

As World War II raged on, she was sworn into the US Navy Reserve in December 1943 at age 34 and joined the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) program, as women hadn't achieved permanent status in the armed services yet.

Once there, she was assigned to the bureau of ordinance computation project at Harvard University where she joined the first programming team for the Mark I computer, the largest electromechanical calculator ever built and the first automatic digital calculator in the United States. She also popularized the term “computer bug” after her team found a moth causing problems inside its successor, the Mark II.

While working on the first commercial large-scale electronic computer, UNIVAC I at Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corp, she began to devise ways for computer language to be more like human language than machine code.

Grace Hopper with the UNIVAC I and COBOL in hand.

Grace Hopper with the UNIVAC I and COBOL in hand.

Soon after that, a small team of computer manufacturers, users, and university researchers led by Hopper met on April 8, 1959, to discuss the creation of a new programming language that would become COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language).

After reaching the Navy rank of Rear Admiral at age 79, Hopper involuntarily retired in 1986 at age 80 and received the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the highest award given by the Department of Defense. She continued to consult for electronics companies and present at various conferences until she was 84.

Hopper died on January 1, 1992, and was laid to rest with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

Continue reading on EBN sister site, EDN.

6 comments on “Mothers of Innovation: 12 Women Engineers and Scientists to Know

  1. Marianne
    March 31, 2015

    Grace Hopper was my thesis advisor. She is taught some Linear Programming (supply vs demsnd). She would have loved to hear more about advanced supply chain models that are now available today. She most likely would have asked me to contribute blogs for EBNonline.

  2. Marianne
    April 2, 2015

    I forgot to mention that we did not use COBOL to solve Linear Programming problems that Grace Hopper gave us.  I believe she had a PhD in mathematical physics. In later years I was selected at a U. S. Defense agency to perform a mini-feasibility study on better ways of solving complex supply/demand problems. I was the only one in that group with a Master of Science degree in Engineering and was initiated into the Math Honorary Society for my outstanding achievement in math.

  3. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    April 2, 2015

    @Marianne, how cool to know this pioneer? I wonder, EBNers, who have the rest of you known in your careers? Have you rubbed elbows with any of these great folks?

  4. Marianne
    April 2, 2015

    @Hailey, this pioneer invited me during a class break to a small snack room across from the class room to tell me about her achievements. I didn't know about her background when I first enrolled in her class. She was a very kind person about my hearing problems.

  5. Marianne
    April 2, 2015

    @Hailey, I still have the textbook she used in the class – Quantitative Methods for Decision Making.

  6. Marianne
    April 3, 2015

    @Hailey, I also have two books published by the CODASYL Systems Committee on generalized database management systems. Hopper served as a technical consultant to the committee. We talked about these books and probably gave some COBOL examples at one class session. She was so kind after discovering my hearing problems. She made sure I got the assignments from her correctly. As a result I got a grade of A for each semester

    Just before the end of second semester, she received a note from U.S. President Johnson about an assignment at The Pentagon. Of course, she accepted it. But she did leave me her home phone number. I got my Master of Science in Engineering degree over the summer while she was in Washington DC. I would think had she stayed at the university, she would have made sure I got my PhD. I wish I had taken her courses a year earlier, so I could continue having her as my PhD advisor.

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