While names like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg may be the first that spring to mind when discussing tech innovation, some of the biggest movers of the proverbial needle have been women.
Take Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s billionaire chief operating officer, or Marissa Mayer, the former CEO of Yahoo! who oversaw the dotcom company’s successful sale to Verizon.
These are just two women who have taken up the baton, proudly following in the footsteps of some of history’s greatest inventors and thinkers.
Yet with most of us waking up each morning to an alarm on a phone that packs more impressive software than was used to land humans on the moon, it’s easy to become blasé about the technology at our fingertips.
But were it not for some of history’s greatest women, we would not have access to so many of the modern conveniences we often take for granted.
The foundations of modernity: Computers and Wi-Fi
Take Ada Lovelace, who may have been best known for being the only legitimate child of Lord Byron, were it not for her own brilliance.
Lovelace, born in 1815, was only a teenager when she first met Charles Babbage, and by the age of 28 she had become an expert on Babbage’s ‘Analytical Engine’ – one of the first computers.
In fact, while Babbage may be known as “the father of the computer”, Lovelace is regarded as “the first computer programmer”.
“She was the first person to write and publish a full set of instructions that a computing device could use to reach an end result that had not been calculated in advance,” writes Suw Charman-Anderson, who founded Ada Lovelace Day in 2009.
Then there was Hedy Lamarr – who was not only one of the most famous actresses in the world during the 1930s and ’40s, she also invented the technology that made Wi-Fi possible.
In 1940, with World War II in full swing, Lamarr worked with musician George Antheil to create a system that would serve to protect communications to radio-controlled torpedoes from being jammed by enemies.
“Although Lamarr and Antheil never profited from their invention during their lifetime, it was acknowledged by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1997 as an important development in wireless communications,” reads her biography on the National Inventors Hall of Fame, to which she was inducted in 2014.
More recently, Dr Shirley Ann Jackson’s work at Bell Laboratories helped pave the way for some of modern communications’ most popular uses, such as caller ID and call waiting.
Dr Jackson has also done just about all there is to be done in the realm of science, including being the first woman to serve as chair of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and having helped oversee more than $1 billion invested in Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where she serves as President.
That barely scratches the surface of Dr Jackson’s achievements, with Time Magazine describing her as “perhaps the ultimate role model for women in science”.
An inspiring future
So who is set to carry the torch into the future?
While her first patent was filed all the way back in the early ’90s, Dr Ann Tsukamoto has continued at the forefront of stem-cell research, her work having saved countless lives by improving cancer treatment.
And the good doctor has continued to innovate, working on 11 further patented ideas – the most recent of which was filed in 2017.
As for the next generation, one of the most exciting young minds in science today would have to be Macinley Butson.
Still only a teenager, this young Australian already has four inventions to her name – the first of which she came up with when she was only in the sixth grade! She also created a solar-powered water-purification system that she presented at the Stockholm Junior Water Prize at the age of 16.
But Macinley’s most famous invention (to date) is SMART Armour. Officially ‘Scale Maille Armour for Radiation Therapy’, the device is used by breast-cancer patients to shield the breast not being treated for the disease, resulting in up to 75 per cent less radiation affecting the healthy breast.
The new normal
At a speech given in May 2017, Lakshmi Puri, Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, noted: “We must ensure that women’s participation in innovation is not the exception, but becomes the norm.”
Indeed we must – it’s reassuring to know that women have been and will continue to be some of our most inspiring, successful and vital inventors and scientists.