Calling All Women Inventors

February 2016

This may come as a surprise to many readers, but the first computer programmer was a woman. Her name was Ada Lovelace (née Byron), and she was the daughter of the famous poet Lord Byron. The fact that her father was a philanderer is relevant to Ada's story because her mother, who had a propensity for mathematics, insisted that Ada study only mathematics—not poetry—in order to avoid becoming the mirror image of her father.

At age 18, Ada met Charles Babbage, who had plans to build a machine called the "Analytical Engine" that would have been the first mechanically-operated computer. (Babbage was unable to obtain funding for his project during his lifetime, although the machine was ultimately built and now stands in the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.) Because it was not considered proper for a woman to publish under her own name in the mid-1800s, Lovelace translated a paper about the machine from French to English and at the same time appended volumes of her own annotations. These annotations were longer than the paper itself and set forth what is now considered to have been the first algorithm ever written for a computer. In her writing, Lovelace conceived of the computer as a modern-day iPhone—a machine that could process images and music, in addition to numbers.

Fast forward 100 years, and six women have been hired by the U.S. Army as part of the war effort to program the Electronic Numeric Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), which was the first all-electric digital computer. These women were called the "Computers," and this work was performed in secret at the University of Pennsylvania for the purpose of calculating ballistics trajectories. These women worked without programming languages, compilers or a manual—their only tool being logic diagrams they created themselves. A documentary about these ENIAC programmers debuted earlier this year:

It is clear from these and countless other stories of early "STEM" women that the female gender has always had the capability to excel in science and engineering. The greatest challenges have been cultural. The first woman to receive a U.S. patent was Mary Dixon Kies, a woman from Connecticut who invented a process for weaving straw with silk or thread and received her patent in 1809; at the time, domestic millinery was in demand due to the trade embargo with Europe. (Other women innovators were dissuaded from pursuing patents because they could not legally hold property. Presumably, Kies was a named inventor but not the owner of her patent.) According to data released by the National Women's Business Council in 2012, women are listed as inventors on less than 20% of all patents issued to U.S. inventors. (For more information on this study, click here.) Yet in the last academic year, women made up 46% of the undergraduates and 32% of the graduates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The West has always been a gender equalizer out of sheer necessity of survival. In this spirit, Montana elected the first woman to the United States Congress in 1916. In 1914, due to Rankin's efforts, Montana granted women the right to vote—six years before that right became federal. From 1870 to 1914, nine other western states granted women the right to vote while several eastern states voted down women's suffrage. As one of the best cities for female entrepreneurship in America, Billings stands ready to engender and support the next generation of women inventors.


Amicable photo of Toni

Antoinette M. Tease, P.L.L.C.