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History may now look back on these women as innovators, though they seldom received acknowledgement for their work during their own times. But if it wasn’t for the brilliant and analytical minds of these three women, the likes of smartphones, cars, and computers might not operate as they do today.
Many knew Hedy Lamarr as a bombshell actress and "the most beautiful woman in the world," but few knew her as a groundbreaking inventor. Though her role in 1938’s Algiers marked her leap into Hollywood, it’s her wartime invention that stands out as her biggest breakthrough.
Having emigrated from Austria before achieving fame in Tinseltown, Lamarr sought to make crossing the Atlantic safer for refugees fleeing the conflict of World War II. Her idea was a “secret communication system” – a way for Allied ships to contact each other and avoid interception by having radio signals hop frequencies.
To develop the mechanical side of the concept, she teamed up with George Antheil – a friend and composer with experience making musical instruments communicate – and they successfully patented the system in 1942. Unfortunately for Lamarr, the U.S. Navy wasn’t interested in an invention from an actress; they felt she could better serve the battle as an entertainer.
In the following decade, however, others would build off of Lamarr’s groundbreaking work, and the frequency hopping concept ultimately led to invention of WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth. She gained widespread attention for her efforts in the years leading up to her death in 2000, receiving the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award in 1997.
While watching a streetcar driver constantly exiting the vehicle to wipe snow off the windshield, Mary Anderson had an idea that seems obvious today, but was revolutionary at the time: a blade that swipes across to clean the glass, all without the driver needing to leave the seat.
Known as a windscreen wiper today, Anderson’s 1903 patent simply called it a “window cleaning device.” It would be operated by a lever inside the vehicle, and when pulled, a spring-loaded arm made of wood and rubber would move back and forth across the pane.
Anderson tried to sell her patent to the car industry, but no company would bite. Some told her they didn’t see its commercial value, and others thought it would distract drivers and cause accidents. Unfortunately, she passed away in 1953 having never made any money from her creation, but she did get the recognition she deserved in 2011 when she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Having grown up with a love for mathematics, it’s unsurprising that Ada Lovelace took an immediate interest in Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, a proposed mechanical computer. Though she didn’t come up with the machine itself, she was the one who illuminated the world on its potential, and provided a glimpse of what computers would one day be capable of.
In 1843, she provided extensive notes in a book on the Analytical Engine, articulating its use and theorizing how it could be used to convey text, music, and images digitally. It’s in this same book that Lovelace wrote what’s now considered to be the first ever algorithm, making her the world’s first programmer.
Lovelace’s contributions to computer science were disregarded and disputed for well over a century, though her work has become more appreciated in recent times. She was honored with an annual day in her name founded in 2009, and her notes went on to sell for almost £100,000 in 2018.