Women Who Changed the Internet

James Murray / Updated Jul 14,2023 | Pub Sep 20,2021

Women are notorious trailblazers and are more involved in the invention, creation, and processes of the digital world than we may think.

In the United States alone, the number of women who changed history is too high to count, but features some standouts.

Take, for example, Susan B. Anthony, who played a pivotal role in the women’s suffrage movement. Or Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic ocean. And let’s not forget other incredible women like Grace Hopper, Coretta Scott King, Sandra Day O’Connor, among many more.

It’s no surprise that, of course, the number of women involved in the foundations of the Internet as we know it today also continues to grow and expand.

Here’s everything you should know about the women who changed the Internet.

First Computer Programmer: Ada Lovelace

It’s a surprising fact to hear about computer programming back in the 1800s, but technological advances were alive and vibrant; Ada Lovelace formed part of this initial movement to further the understanding of computers.

Born in England, Lovelace was a countess and the daughter of the famous poet, Lord Byron. She was mostly educated privately by tutors and self-taught in some ways. However, the person who really changed her course in learning was Augustus De Morgan, first professor of Mathematics at the University of London.

Under his tutelage, Lovelace began working with Charles Babbage, who is credited with creating the first automatic digital computer. Lovelace was a naturally curious woman and soon did annotations for other mathematicians and scientists.

This caught the attention of Babbage, and Lovelace was the first person to create a program for Babbage’s prototype of a digital computer. The early programming language was named “Ada” as an homage to Lovelace’s efforts in the process of creation.

Inventor of the term “Bug”: Grace Hopper

Before diving into how Grace Hopper had an influence on the Internet, it’s important to mention some interesting facts about her.

  • Math professor who joined the US Navy during WWII.
  • One of the first computer programmers to work on the Harvard Mark I.
  • Credited with coining the terms “bug” and “de-bug.”

Hopper rose to fame after figuring out how to program computers with words instead of numbers. Basically, everything that Lovelace predicted about computers and programming about 100 years earlier came true during Hopper’s era as an influencer of the Internet.

In 1943 during WWII, Hopper was assigned to the Harvard University’s Bureau of Ordinance Computation Project because of her background as a Yale-educated math professor. There, she primarily focused on the Mark series computers and coined the term “bug” after a moth infiltrated hardware on the machine.

The Cray XE6 “Hopper” Supercomputer is named after her for her involvement in computer programming during the Second World War and her help in developing the computer language COBOL—one of the first high-level programming languages.

Original Creator of a Social Network: Stacy Horn

Contrary to popular belief, no, Tom from MySpace was not the original creator of the social network. It was actually Stacy Horn.

Back in the 80s, Horn was a graduate student with a vision to communicate with others in an online community. Keep in mind this was before the World Wide Web existed, so in order to do this, Horn created Echo—a Bulletin Board System, or BBS, a text window through which people could dial on the phone and pay by the hour to interact with others “online.”

Online communities such as Echo were incredibly popular at the time, ranging in topics from books and culture to romance and dating. Believe it or not, Echo still exists today, though perhaps it doesn’t enjoy the same amount of traffic it did back when it started.

Horn wrote about detailing the entire experience. It’s worth a read if you’re interested in knowing more about the beginnings of what is today’s social media platform.

The Mother of the Internet: Radia Perlman

The best way to describe Radia Perlman is to give her full credit for how the Internet works today. She developed what is called spanning-tree protocol (STP), a system that allows two networks to join and act as one.

This was the first time that computers could connect with one another on a global level. Prior to the STP system, computers could only connect to a small number of organizations. Her creation and use of algorithms has had a tremendous impact on how networks self-organize and move data from one place to another.

Perlman’s contributions to the Internet also include network security protocols by incorporating trust models for Public Key Infrastructure and data expiration. She’s an avid educator in mathematics and computer science.

Expert Programmer of the World’s First Computer: Jean Bartik

Jean Bartik became a human-computer from a very early age. Though she was born and raised on a farm, Bartik had enough ambition to get herself a college education in mathematics. It wasn’t before long that she replied to an ad in the paper seeking college-educated women in mathematics to work in a Philadelphia-based company to compute the trajectory of ballistic missiles.

That was her first job right out of college.

Bartik then joined five other women in the pioneering work to develop the first computer that had the capabilities to be programmed for many purposes. This was part of a secret project known as the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator (ENIAC)—a project launched by the army.

What made the whole thing extra challenging was that because it was all women that were working on this first computer for ENIAC, they could not enter the facilities that contained everything they would need to successfully create the computer. So, they had to work on circuit diagrams and figure out how to program everything on a small scale.

Bartik was tasked with the math portion of the process, while the other ladies focused on other aspects of the machine. The hard work paid off, as once they were able to finish with the programming, the computer could compute ballistic tables in seconds. Incredible work done under very crammed circumstances.

Advocate for Internet Safety: Anne-Marie Eklund Lowinder

Even though Internet safety is always growing, it wouldn’t be what it is today without the involvement of Anne-Marie Eklund Lowinder in the entire process. She was one of the earliest advocates for making sure that users could access secure websites.

She is perhaps best known for her role in the development of Domain Name System Security Extensions (DNSSE), a set of specifications set up by the Internet Engineering Task Force to strengthen authentication and encourage the use of digital signatures based on public key cryptography.

Lowinder’s job is incredibly important as she’s currently one of seven people in the entire world that controls the DNSSE’s key generation for the Internet root zone. Basically, she controls the entire Internet. Literally.

Pioneer of Internet-based Education: Yvonne Marie Andres

In the mid-80s, Andres started what was then called the Global SchoolNet, an international network designed to promote collaborative engagement projects. That was just the beginning.

The foundations of that first project led Andres to launch the Global Schoolhouse, an international organization whose job is to connect children with educators in the sciences and literature to further knowledge and make education more accessible to everyone.

She is most notably known for being the first woman to establish the first-ever live-streamed television broadcast. It was called World News Now and ABC actually still runs it as part of its late-night programming.

Andres continues to work in furthering education and e-learning.

Programmer of Languages: Jean Sammet

Very much like the other women on this list, Jean Sammet graduated from Mount Holyoke College with a degree in mathematics. At the beginning of her career, Sammet worked for Sylvania Electric Products, where she thrived as the head of software development for the MOBIDIC computer.

In the early 60s, she joined the IBM team and led the team that developed FORMAC, a prominent and important computer language, and symbolic mathematics system. Funny enough, she ended up working on the development of the Ada programming language, which, as mentioned before, was named after Ada Lovelace, the original computer programming pioneer.

Of course, there are many other women that are missing from this tiny list.

The women mentioned above are just some of the thousands of women that have held an important role in mobilizing, creating, and developing many of the foundations that form the Internet as we know it today.

Who knows how many more women will create many of the things we’ll use in the future. One thing’s for sure though, nobody can wait to see what they’ll come up with next.