Wonder Women: Inventors that Changed the World

by Mary Darlene Nuas

Art by Myrah Alouette Alcobilla for Hiraya Zine.

We often associate the image of “Wonder Women” with female CEOs, world leaders, superheroes, or mothers. But rarely do we ever think of scientists, who set their lives improving the world we know today — all while fighting their own battles in the cut-throat world of STEM.

Women inventors of the past were smart and had creative ideas, yet the main reason they weren’t recognized earlier was due to unequal opportunities. One word: Patriarchy. According to the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence, patriarchy is “a system for maintaining class, gender, racial, and heterosexual privilege and the status quo of power — relying both on crude forms of oppression, like violence; and subtle ones, like laws; to perpetuate inequality.”

Due to society’s bias towards heterosexual men, women, and parts of the LGBTQ+ community are not given equal opportunities. Focusing on the case of women, they were deprived of proper education for centuries and were treated “second to man”. During the exploration and colonialism eras, these prejudices became propaganda to spread power and expand wealth. It was hard, considering that women in the past didn’t have the funds for patents and were excluded from conventions to further discuss their work. Despite that, there are still notable figures who passed these challenges, and some who needed more recognition.

Here are four wonder women whose inventions changed the world by storm.

Rosalind Franklin

Photograph by National Portrait Gallery UK

Rosalind Elsie Franklin, known as the “Wronged Heroine of DNA”, was an English scientist who not only fought for her right to education but studied one of the most important parts of Biology; the double-helix structure of DNA. Although it was credited to James Watson and Francis Crick in 1952, Franklin was able to obtain Photo 51, an X-Ray image that led to the conclusion.

Her journey was rough since as a woman, her accounts were overlooked and even plagiarized. According to her biography, her colleague, Maurice Wilkins, stole the image and presented it to Watson and Crick — all while Franklin was coming up with calculations regarding the precise structure. Their studies were done at the same time, but Watson and Crick’s study was published first so it looked like Franklin’s work supported their claims, not inspired them.

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace

Photograph via Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Living in the 1800s, Augusta Ada King or better known as Ada Lovelace was an English mathematician and writer who enjoyed both science and literature. She was the child of one of England’s greatest poets, Lord Byron, yet her mother wanted her “to stray away from those poetic tendencies”. Hence, since her young years, she received intense tutoring in math, science, and music.

In the 1840s, she envisioned machines that could manipulate symbols and not just numbers, making the first computer program — before the first computer was even invented. When she was 17, she met Professor Charles Babbage, the then known Father of Computers, who worked with her until she was older. In 1943, Professor Babbage asked Lovelace to translate a description produced by his invention, the Analytical Engine. This was a steam-powered engine programmed to analyze different mathematical operations. Lovelace worked on this in 9 months and not only translated the description but also made her own notes. As you might’ve guessed, these notes became the first computer algorithm. Her work was not limited to numbers alone but anything within a set of rules.

A century after her death, her work was republished and became the benchmark to program the computers we know today. Babbage called her the “Enchantress of Numbers” for all the right reasons.

Dr. Gladys West

Photograph by the West Family.

West grew up in Virginia to parents who were farmers. She knew long before that farming was not for her, so she studied hard.

Education became her solace from the harsh world and eventually, she graduated with a full scholarship from Virginia State University with a college and master’s degree in Mathematics. She worked for the Naval Surface Warfare Center where her job was to manually compute Pluto’s Motion. In the 1980s, she was assigned to do the math on Earth’s model as accurately as possible, using satellite images.

Her contributions as a female black mathematician led to the discovery of the Global Positioning System or GPS, a convenient program that allows consumers to navigate areas using satellite images — all while battling segregation and racism in society. This inspirational story became the theme of the 2016 film, “Hidden Figures.”

Dr. Grace Hopper

Photograph by Vassar Archives and Special Collections

Grace Hopper was a certified Girl Boss™ as she pursued many exciting endeavors and transitioned from being a Mathematician to a military official.

She obtained a degree in Mathematics from Vassar College, then a Masters, and Ph.D. in Math and Physics from Yale University. She is known as the “Grandmother of Programming” for she pioneered the first Compiler that translated common sense commands to binary computer language. Hopper coined the term “debugging” as she fixed the military-grade computer Mark II when it glitched because a moth got stuck in the circuit.

After she retired from the Navy at the age of 80, she spent her life delivering speeches and lectures, inspiring young minds to pursue their creativity and knowledge.

Striding towards equality, one woman at a time

Recently, STEM became more diverse and accepting of women. Despite being predominated by white cisgender men, minorities are somehow better recognized in the field for their significant contributions that are shaping our modern world. However, prejudice is still rampant, especially against women who suffer the dilemma of choosing between career and motherhood. The gender gap is also evident in the obvious difference in salary grades for men and women in the same jobs. This is inevitable, but just like how these wonder women proved, if there is a will, hence come a way. Like superheroes, they managed to find ways to shape the world to how we know it today and revolutionized science centuries and decades ago.

As said by Mae Jimson, “Don’t let anyone rob you of your imagination, your creativity, or your curiosity. It’s your place in the world; it’s your life. Go on and do all you can with it, and make it the life you want to live.” Great minds should be nurtured and celebrated equally, regardless of gender, for they all have done a great deal in achieving the world we have today, and the world we will have in the future.

References

This article is from Hiraya Zine Volume 2, Issue 1: Origin of Origins last January 2022. Download the zine for free here.

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Hiraya Zine

Hiraya Zine

Flagship project of SciCreate, bridging the gap between researchers and the youth through the use of art, writing, and the humanities in quarterly zine issues.