Today marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, an opportunity to look back at some of the most significant technological inventions that the world owes to pioneering women, most of whom remain unknown to the public.
In addition, did you know that many of the innovations used in the automotive field today were also created by women? Read on to find out more!
A forerunner to the computer
English mathematician Ada Lovelace is a pioneer in the history of computing, having helped develop what could be considered the very first computer in the 19th century, by working on Charles Babbage’s analytical machine.
This was, in fact, a programmable calculating machine: she is said to have written the very first computer program in history, published in 1843. The Ada computer language, which appeared in the early 1980s, paid tribute to her work.
Hedy Lamarr’s story is unique: during World War II, the Austrian-born American actress and movie femme fatale helped develop a brand-new communications system that used radio frequencies to guide torpedoes from a distance.
Based on a signal that is very difficult for the enemy to intercept, the principles of this technology are still used today in encrypted military transmissions, but also in consumer technologies such as GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
American mathematician and physicist Grace Hopper helped create the first computer software. In 1953, she invented a compiler, a program for translating human instructions into computer source code.
It was designed to be used by companies for automatic invoicing and personnel records. Anecdotally, she even coined the term “bug”, commonly used to describe a computer malfunction.
The Apollo program
Computer scientist Margaret Hamilton played a major role in the United States’ conquest of space, writing all the computer code for the Apollo space program designed to put humans on the Moon.
She worked on the navigation and lunar landing software for the various modules sent into space by Nasa. In particular, these helped to anticipate potential breakdowns and ensure smooth landing and takeoff.
In 1903, American inventor Mary Anderson filed the first patent for the windshield wiper, which took the form of a mechanised arm with a crank and a simple rubber pad, all operated by a lever, meaning that the driver didn’t have to get out of the vehicle to operate it.
The system wasn’t truly adopted by carmakers until much later, and it wasn’t until the 1920s that it became automatic, thanks to the integration of small electric motors.
Interior rearview mirror
In 1909, Englishwoman Dorothy Levitt, a racing driver and aviator in her spare time, published a little manual for women behind the wheel. Among her many tips, she recommended carrying a handheld mirror to look at what’s going on behind you at times, giving rise to the concept of the rearview mirror.
The real rearview mirror made its first appearance at the Indianapolis 500 in 1911 and was later adapted for production cars.
A film star in the early 20th century, Canadian actress Florence Lawrence is remembered for an invention that may be considered the forerunner of the turn signal. In 1914, she came up with the idea of installing a system of an auto-signalling arm at the rear of a car, operated through buttons located near the driver’s seat.
The system would raise the arm to the left or right to show which way the vehicle was about to turn. Perfected years later, this gave rise to the turn signal.
British typographer and graphic designer Margaret Calvert, along with her colleague Jock Kinneir, created a large number of road signs, first used in the United Kingdom and later adopted and rolled out around the world.
Their job was to make these signs as clear and easy to understand as possible at a glance. For almost a decade, the team worked on the shape of the signs, as well as on the pictograms and lettering.