When we think about “badass” women pioneers in the world of science and technology, several famous names come up again and again: Grace Hopper, Ada Lovelace, Evelyn Boyd Granville, and Erna Schneider Hoover, for example (check out how we honored these amazing women on Mount Codemore). But when our own New Relic Software Engineer Alexa Zeazas started publishing a daily series of profiles on “Badass Women” in tech, we noticed some names on that list that were not nearly as well known as they should be, and we wanted to share their inspirational life stories.
Caution: Read on if you are prepared to feel inspired and empowered, but also a little bit intimidated at the same time.
Hedy Lamarr (1913-2000): Austrian-born American film actress and inventor
Although Hedy Lamarr is well known for her career in Hollywood, few realize that the glamorous Austrian-American actress was also a groundbreaking inventor, despite having no formal training.
During the peak of her acting career, Lamarr and her friend, composer George Antheil, developed a radio signaling device, or “Secret Communications System,” that was a means of changing radio frequencies to keep enemies from decoding messages. Originally designed to defeat the Nazis during World War II, the system became an important step in the development of technology to maintain the security of both military communications and cellular phones.
Lamarr wasn’t initially acknowledged for her brilliant invention, as its impact wasn’t truly understood until decades later (the principles of the pair’s work are incorporated into modern Bluetooth technology). However, Lamarr and Antheil were finally honored in 1997 with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Pioneer Award, and Lamarr became the first woman to receive the BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award and was eventually inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.
Sameera Moussa (1917-1952): Egyptian nuclear physicist
Born in Muḥāfẓet El Gharbeya, Egypt, Sameera Moussa (سميرة موسى: in Arabic) was inspired at a young age to dedicate her life to the study of science after losing her mother to cancer. Moussa earned her B.S. in radiology at Cairo University, graduating at the top of her class, and became the first woman to obtain a doctorate in atomic radiation, determined to make medical use of nuclear technology affordable to all.
Moussa developed the historic equation that would later allow scientists to break up the atoms of common metals such as copper, ultimately paving the way for a cheap nuclear bomb. She also organized the Atomic Energy for Peace Conference and helped sponsor the international conference “Atom for Peace,” to which many prominent scientists were invited.
Moussa went on to receive a Fulbright scholarship and traveled to the United States to study at the University of California, Berkeley. While in the country, she was even granted permission to visit secret U.S. atomic facilities. After turning down several offers to stay in the states and be granted U.S. citizenship, Sameera stayed true to her home country and insisted that she must return. While making one last trip before returning home, Moussa was killed in a mysterious car accident. Despite her brief life, Sameera Moussa’s important contributions to science live on.
Stephanie Kwolek (1923-2014): American chemist
When she was still a child, Stephanie Kwolek was inspired to study science by her father, a recreational naturalist. She spent hours exploring the woods and fields near her home with him, filling scrapbooks with samples of leaves, wildflowers, and seeds, along with short descriptions of everything she collected. From her mother Kwolek developed a love of fabrics and sewing, and at one point she considered pursuing a career as a fashion designer.
Kwolek eventually decided to study chemistry and medicine, and after graduating from the women’s college of Carnegie Mellon University, she landed a job as a chemist with the DuPont Company. Kwolek found the polymer research she was doing at DuPont so interesting and challenging that she decided to drop her plans to apply to medical school and instead make chemistry a lifetime career.
When Kwolek was in her 40s, DuPont assigned her the project of finding the next generation of fibers durable enough to perform under extreme conditions. Her experiments led Kwolek to create a polyamide solution unlike any previously prepared in the laboratory. The new substance could be spun into incredibly strong, stiff fibers, a breakthrough which led to the creation of the infamous yellow Kevlar fiber, a material used today in over 200 products, including bullet-proof vests.
Kwolek received many awards for her invention, and she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1994, being only the fourth woman to be so honored at the time.
Margaret Heafield Hamilton (b. 1936): American computer scientist, systems engineer, and business owner
Born in Paoli, Indiana, Margaret Heafield Hamilton was one of the first computer software programmers, and she even coined the term “software engineer” to describe her work. She earned her bachelor’s degree in mathematics and philosophy at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, and briefly taught high school mathematics after graduating. Hamilton then moved to Boston with her husband, where she accepted a job at MIT, programming software to predict the weather. In the early 1960s, she joined MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory to work on the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment project, the first U.S. air defense system, writing software to identify enemy aircraft.
Hamilton then joined NASA, where she led the team responsible for developing the guidance software and control systems of the in-flight command and lunar modules of the Apollo missions. Hamilton specifically worked on software to detect system errors and recover information loss from computer crashes (both crucial during the Apollo 11 mission, which took astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon).
Hamilton left MIT in the mid-1970s to go into business, co-founding Higher Order Software in 1976 and then Hamilton Technologies 10 years later.
Valentina Tereshkova (b. 1937): Soviet cosmonaut
Valentina Tereshkova was born in Maslennikovo, a small village in central Russia, to a humble family—her father was a tractor driver and her mother a worker in a textile plant. Young Tereshkova was only able to attend school until the age of 16, after which she continued her education via correspondence courses.
It was Tereshkova’s interest in parachute jumping from an early age that got her selected for the competitive cosmonaut program, one of only four other women chosen. On June 16, 1963, aboard the rocket Vostok 6, Valentina became the first woman to venture into space. She made 48 orbits of the earth and spent almost three days in space.
Later in life, Tereshkova directed the Soviet Women’s Committee, served as a member of the Supreme Soviet Presidium, and became deputy chair of the parliament of Yaroslavl province. For her significant contributions, she was named a Hero of the Soviet Union and awarded the prestigious Order of Lenin—not once, but twice.
Although technology remains a male-dominated industry, we are making headway everyday toward a more female-inclusive tech world. Today, there are more resources than ever to support girls and women with a passion for science, mathematics, and coding—check out organizations such as the Anita Borg Institute, DC Web Women, Girls in Tech, Black Girls Code, ChickTech, and Girl Develop It.
We must continue to encourage young women to broaden their concept of what career paths are open to them. Women like Valentina Tereshkova, Stephanie Kwolek, and Sameera Moussa broke new ground and shattered glass ceilings, but it’s now our responsibility to follow in their badass footsteps.
Is there another badass female tech pioneer who inspires you? Tweet us your favorites at @NewRelic with hashtag #WomenInTech.
Special thanks to Alexa Zeazas for her original idea. Photo credits: Hedy Lamarr publicity photo for the film The Heavenly Body, 1944; Sameera Moussa from Al Ahram Daily newspaper; Margaret Heafield Hamilton official photo for NASA, 1989; Valentina Tershkova at the Heureka science centre, in Finland, 2002 (all photos in the public domain). Stephanie Kwolek photo credit: Harry Kalish, Chemical Heritage Foundation [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.