Many pioneers in computing were women of color. Here are 5 you should recognize

Technology is about access. Every new innovation inevitably opens another door to new ideas, more information, and increasingly novel methods for mundane and extraordinary tasks alike.

But this access doesn’t come from nowhere, especially not in the world of computing. It requires something groundbreaking. It requires trailblazers.

And many of those stories belong to women of color. Some of the most important computing milestones include the stories of these women, who had to break down the doors of misogyny and institutionalized racism to achieve their respective technological advancements. Whether the latest frontier was space exploration, the internet, or accessibility research, women of color were — and still are — at the forefront of these endeavors. And more than that, their computing contributions helped make the world and its scientific discoveries more accessible for everyone. Here are five of these incredible women of color.

At the start of it all

The rapid advancement in modern space exploration has been possible because of improvements in computing. And many of these improvements were pioneered by women of color who often got their start at organizations like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). And while many of their early developments led to the United States finally reaching its goal of landing on the moon in 1969, their continued work in developing software and computer systems to be used in space missions has only furthered the research endeavors of the American space program and our collective knowledge of outer space.

5 women of color pioneers computing dr evelyn granville yale asu c
Dr. Evelyn Boyd Granville receiving an honory degree at Yale University in 2001 Appalachian State University

In an essay written for SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women, mathematician and computer programmer Dr. Evelyn Boyd Granville once wrote the following about her work at NASA:

“I can say without a doubt that this was the most interesting job of my lifetime — to be a member of a group responsible for writing computer programs to track the paths of vehicles in space.”

Dr. Evelyn Boyd Granville is best known for her work in developing computer software for NASA’s Mercury and Vanguard space programs. Granville’s influential involvement with NASA’s space program began in 1956, when she was hired by IBM. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Granville’s software “helped analyze satellite orbits for the Project Mercury missions.” This is particularly notable since the Mercury project was the very first human spaceflight program for the United States.

Another mathematician-turned-computer-programmer, Melba Roy Mouton, also made her mark on computing and space exploration history. Like Dr. Granville, Mouton’s work was integral to the American space program of the 1950s and 60s. Mouton’s career at NASA began in 1959 and her computing work included coding computer programs that calculated aircraft trajectories and locations. And according to Entity Mag, Mouton’s computations also “helped produce the orbital element timetables, which let millions see the Echo satellites as they passed over Earth.” Essentially, Mouton’s work provided the sort of access that allowed millions of people to view satellites in action.

nasa mercury spacecraft
Mathematician and computer programmer Dr. Evelyn Boyd Granville is best known for her contributions to the early years of the American space program. Dr. Granville developed computer software that aided in the analysis of satellite orbits for the Project Mercury missions. Pictured here is the NASA Mercury Spacecraft Granville’s work supported. Joyce Naltchayan/Getty Images

Rounding out the computing achievements of women of color in space exploration is Ellen Ochoa. Ochoa once made the following observation about the astronaut corps:

melba roy mouton
In the 1960’s, Melba Roy Mouton served as Assistant Chief of Research Programs at NASA’s Trajactory and Geodynamics Division NASA

“What everyone in the astronaut corps shares in common is not gender or ethnic background, but motivation, perseverance, and desire — the desire to participate in a voyage of discovery.”

And it was her own “desire to participate in a voyage of discovery” that propelled Ochoa to develop the very optical and computer systems that shaped NASA’s future research missions.

Mouton’s work provided the sort of access that allowed millions of people to view satellites in action.

While Ochoa is best known for being for becoming the first Hispanic female astronaut, it was her computing achievements that ultimately earned her a spot in NASA’s astronaut training program. Prior to becoming an astronaut, Ochoa had been at Stanford University for graduate school, working on developing optical systems and then continued designing them as a research engineer at New Mexico’s Sandia National Laboratory.

Her work in optical systems at Sandia led to the creation of three devices for which she was named co-inventor within their subsequent patents; these patents were filed in 1987. According to Lemelson-MIT, each of the three devices had a different function: one inspected objects, another “recognized” them, and the third reduced “distortion in the images taken of an object.”

Ellen Ochoa
Prior to becoming the first Hispanic female astronaut, Ellen Ochoa designed optical systems as a research engineer at Sandia National Laboratory. Ochoa’s work with optical systems eventually led her to being named as co-inventor for three optical devices that could recognize objects and reduce noise in space photos. NASA

But Ochoa’s contributions to computing didn’t stop with those optical system patents. She went on to work for NASA’s Ames Research Center where she continued to innovate, but focused on the development of computer systems for aeronautical missions.

The combination of Ochoa’s work in the development of optical and computing systems undoubtedly shaped and influenced NASA’s research missions, as her work in computing was seen to have “the potential to improve not only the gathering of data, but also the assessing of the integrity and safety of equipment.”

Access in the age of the internet

Qiheng Hu is a computer scientist whose contributions to computing are staggering. Hu is best known for connecting mainland China to the internet — quite the task.

China’s connection to the internet was eestablished a result of Hu’s visit to the National Science Foundation.

In fact, according to the Internet Hall of Fame, China’s connection to the internet was finally established in 1994 as a result of Hu’s visit to the National Science Foundation “for talks that led to a consensus to set up the first direct [Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol, or TCP/IP] connection in China.”

But Hu wasn’t satisfied with just bringing the internet to her country. She has continued to support China’s access to the internet with other other initiatives, including founding the China Internet Network Information Center and, at one time, being president of the Internet Society of China. During her term as ISC president, she even helped set up charitable programs that promoted internet access for underprivileged students in China.

Qiheng Hu
Google Inc.’s Senior Vice President for Engineering Robert Alan Eustace chats with President of The Internet Society of China Hu Qiheng during the 2010 Google Innovation Forum in Beijing, China. VCG/Getty Images

As a result of Hu’s work in computing, an entire country was given access to a vast informational resource that has had a profound impact on China’s development. That impact is best summed up by the acceptance speech Hu delivered as she was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2013:

“After 20 years having the internet in Chinese people’s life, when we look back now what we find is a big change in the society and in people themselves. The internet has dramatically accelerated the stepping forward course of my country. I believe the better future is related with the global multi-stakeholders. Of them, the Chinese internet community is a vibrant part. Being able to join my tiny efforts to the historical stream of mankind to bring the great Internet to life in my country, that is my lifetime honor, and the happiest thing that is permanently deep in my heart.”

Asakawa’s personal history of having been blind since she was 14 has been the biggest motivator for her work

In computing, accessibility research has the capacity to enrich and improve the lives of millions of people around the world every day simply because its purpose is to develop the technologies necessary to ensure those with disabilities have the same access to informational resources and creative content as others.

And with her work in computing, IBM accessibility researcher and inventor Chieko Asakawa had accomplished just that when she pioneered the development and use of voice browsers for the blind.

Asakawa’s personal history of having been blind since she was 14 has been the biggest motivator for her work in developing assistive technology that helps the visually impaired and others with disabilities have better access to computing devices and web resources. Her best known contribution to computing occurred in 1997: It was her development of the IBM Home Page Reader, a revolutionary voice browser program that allowed visually impaired users to have access to the internet’s vast informational resources.

In her 2015 TED @ IBM talk, Asakawa discussed the importance of her work and why it came to be:

“In the ’90s, people around me started talking about the internet and web browsing. I remember the first time I went on the web. I was astonished. I could access newspapers at any time and every day. I could even search for any information by myself. I desperately wanted to help the blind people have access to the internet, and I found ways to render the web into synthesized voice, which dramatically simplified the user interface…It was a revolutionary moment for the blind. The cyber world became accessible, and this technology that we created for the blind has many uses, way beyond what I imagined. It can help drivers listen to their emails or it can help you listen to a recipe while cooking.”

As Asakawa notes, her work in developing voice browsers not only granted access to “the cyber world” for the visually impaired but it also opened the door to other uses for her text-to-speech innovation. As a result of her work, everyone can utilize and enjoy the use of text-to-speech.

Technology, at its best, grants us access to parts of the world and our existence we’d otherwise never get to see on our own.

But Asakawa’s endeavor to help those with disabilities have better access to today’s technology didn’t end there. According to IBM, she and her team have continued to produce assistive technologies and projects to further her life’s work of providing better access to everyone. Her other initiatives include aDesigner, aiBrowser, and the Accessibility Tools Framework.

The aDesigner is a disability simulator that helps web designers develop more user-friendly websites. aiBrowser helps the visually impaired access visual online media, such as streaming video. The Accessibility Tools Framework (ATF) is basically an assortment of standardized, ready-made tools and interfaces to help developers create better accessibility applications. The ATF was essentially created to help “stimulate accessibility software innovation.”

Technology, at its best, grants us access to parts of the world and our existence we’d otherwise never get to see on our own.

As demonstrated by these women of color, with enough persistence and creativity, technology can be shaped into devices, vehicles, and methods that can grant us the best kinds of access. Missions to the moon, connecting an entire country to the internet, and helping the visually impaired experience the internet and its resources.

And so it’s worth remembering that these computing achievements could not have occurred without the work of these women and many others like them, without their willingness to push past societal barriers that would have barred them from creating the very innovations we use today.

Technology empowers society, yet the stories of the important women who have shaped technology are often overshadowed or even erased. Women With Byte is a continuing series of articles in which we look at the many contributions women have made — past and present — as well as the hurdles they face (and overcome), and the foundations they are laying for the next generation of women in technology.

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