Inventor and actress Hedy Lamarr would be 100 years old today, which is a perfect excuse to celebrate her contributions to the field of wireless communications. Lamarr was best known in her lifetime for her job as an MGM film star in the 1930s and 1940s, often playing a smoky-eyed glamor girl. But her most impressive contribution to society came off-screen.
Lamarr helped invent technology used as an underpinning to modern Wi-Fi.
Working with avant-garde composer George Antheil, Lamarr patented an idea of frequency hopping spread-spectrum. She and Antheil came up with the concept to help create an unbreakable code for submarines during war time, but the wide application of their invention wasn’t recognized until later.
This concept was used to create Bluetooth and other components of modern wireless networks, so when you’re on a Netflix binge, thank Hedy.
October 15 is Ada Lovelace Day, named for the world’s first computer programmer and dedicated to promoting women in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math. A Victorian-era mathematical genius, Lovelace was the first to describe how computing machines could solve math problems, write new forms of music, and much more, if you gave them instructions in a language they could understand. Of course, over the ensuing 100-plus years, dudes have been lining up to push her out of the picture (more on that below).
Lovelace is hardly the only woman to be erased from the history of her own work. Here’s a quick look at eight women whose breakthroughs were marginalized by their peers.
Ada Lovelace, computer programming: The daughter of Lord Byron, Lovelace was steered toward math by her mother, who feared her daughter would follow in her father’s “mad, bad, and dangerous” literary footsteps. Luckily, she loved the subject, and remained devoted throughout her brief life—she died in 1852 at age 36, soon after an ambitious, proto-Moneyball attempt to beat the odds at horse racing by developing mathematical models to help place her bets.
When she was barely 20, she started collaborating with the inventor Charles Babbage at the University of London on his “Analytical Engine,” an early model of a computer. In 1843, she added extensive notes of her own to a paper on Babbage’s machine, detailing how the Engine could be fed step-by-step instructions to do complicated math, and trained to work not only with numbers but also words and symbols “to compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”
The notes are considered the first descriptions of what we now call algorithms and computer programming, and for decades, historians have argued over whether Lovelace came up with them herself, or Babbage was somehow the real author. “Ada was as mad as a hatter, and contributed little more to the ‘Notes’ than trouble,” writes one historian, and a “manic depressive with the most amazing delusions about her own talents.” But Babbage’s own memoir suggests she deserved credit for the “the algebraic working out of the different problems,” and more recently she’s been honored with, among other things, a British medal of honor, a Google Doodle, a tunnel boring machine in London, and her own annual celebration. In 2011, the Ada Initiative was founded to help promote women in computer science and open-source technology.
Rosalind Franklin, discovery of the DNA double helix: Watson and Crick’s famed article in Nature on the discovery of the DNA double-helix structure, which would win them a Nobel Prize, buries a mention of Rosalind Franklin’s role in the footnotes. But Franklin, a British biophysicist who had honed a technique to closely observe molecules using X-ray diffraction, was the first to capture a photographic image of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, known as Photo 51. An estranged male colleague of Franklin’s at King’s College showed her photograph to competitors Watson and Crick, without her permission. Photo 51 became crucial in shaping their thesis, but it would take Watson 40 years to admit this publicly. Franklin, known as the “dark lady of DNA,” shifted her focus to the study of RNA, and made important strides before her death from cancer in 1958, four years before Watson and Crick received the Nobel.
The paper bag machine, which is exactly what it sounds like, doesn’t get as much love as the nuclear fission or the computer, and it probably shouldn’t—it’s a convenient but hardly breathtaking way to carry sandwiches. But Knight’s invention, in 1868, is notable for the fight she went through to get credit. Her patent designs were quickly stolen by a man, who sought to have the patent issued in his name by arguing that a woman was incapable of such a breakthrough. It took three years, but Knight eventually won the case in court.
Charles Darrow, an unemployed heating salesman, traditionally gets credit for America’s favorite homage to extortionist landlords. But as PBS discovered in 2004, the board game actually had its start nearly three decades earlier when Magie, an acolyte of the economist Henry George, secured to the patent to The Landlord’s Game. For her efforts in creating the country’s most popular board game she received just $500 from Parker Brothers.
A self-taught computer programmer, conceptual artist, and single mom working at a tech company in the early days of Silicon Valley, Malloy self-published a short story called Uncle Roger in 1986. It’s a wry take on California tech culture through the eyes of an eccentric computer chip salesman, and at the time, the experience of reading Uncle Roger was totally new. It lived online (and still does), and the reader clicked through fragments of the story in whatever order they chose, twisting and reshaping the narrative along the way. Malloy created an elaborate new database system to tell her story, with 32 UNIX shells and a sophisticated search engine for its time. But in 1992, a New York Times book critic crowned the young novelist Michael Joyce’s afternoon, a story as the “granddaddy of full-length hypertext fictions,” though Uncle Roger came first and Malloy’s piece was acclaimed by the emerging digital art community as the earliest notable example of the form.
A student of Max Plank and the first German woman to hold a professorship at a German university, Meitner was forced to flee the country because of her Jewish ancestry. But she continued corresponding with her research partner, Otto Hahn, from Scandinavia, and in 1938 they first articulated the idea of nuclear fission, which five years later would give rise to the atomic bomb. But Hahn left her name off his landmark paper, and when the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences recognized the breakthrough in 1944, they gave the prize in chemistry to Hahn. Meitner eventually earned a more exclusive honor, though; in 1994 she was honored with an element—meitnerium, or Mt on the Periodic Table.
When Pert, then a graduate student at Johns Hopkins, protested that her professor, Dr. Solomon Snyder, had received an award for her discovery of the receptor allows opiates to lock into the brain, Snyder’s response was curt: “That’s how the game is played.” Pert protested in a formal letter to the award committee (“As a graduate student who played a key role in initiating the research and following it up”) and then, having thoroughly revolutionized neuroscience, got back to work. She was working toward a more effective treatment of Alzheimer’s when she died in September.
Coston was officially listed as “administratix” on the 1961 patent that revolutionized communication between US Navy vessels. Official credit for the invention went to her husband, Benjamin Franklin Coston—never mind that he had been dead for the 10 years she had worked with pyrotechnic engineers to turn his idea into a reality. (She received a patent in her own name, 12 years later, for a modified system.)
I need some of you to cut it the hell out. Maybe, for some of you, it’s a presumed similar appreciation for Beyoncé and weave that has you thinking that I’m going to be amused by you approaching me in your best “Shanequa from around the way” voice. I don’t know. What I do know is that I don’t care how well you can quote Madea, who told you that your booty was getting bigger than hers, how cute you think it is to call yourself a strong black woman, who taught you to twerk, how funny you think it is to call yourself Quita or Keisha or for which black male you’ve been bottoming — you are not a black woman, and you do not get to claim either blackness or womanhood. It is not yours. It is not for you.
Let me explain.
Black people can’t have anything. Any of these things include, but aren’t limited to: a general sense of physical safety, comfort with law enforcement, adequate funding and appreciation for black spaces like schools and neighborhoods, appropriate venues for our voices to be heard about criticism of issues without our race going on trial because of it and solid voting rights (cc: Chris McDaniel.)
And then, when you thought this pillaging couldn’t get any worse, extracurricular black activities get snatched up, too: our music, our dances, our slang, our clothing, our hairstyles — all of these things are rounded up, whitewashed and repackaged for your consumption. But here’s the shade — the non-black people who get to enjoy all of the fun things about blackness will never have to experience the ugliness of the black experience, systemic racism and the dangers of simply living while black. Though I suppose there’s some thrill in this “rolling with the homies” philosophy some adopt, white people are not racially oppressed in the United States of America.
White people are not racially oppressed in the United States of America.
White people are not racially oppressed in the United States of America.
Nothing about whiteness will get a white person in trouble the way blackness can get a black person shot down in his tracks. These are just facts. It’s not entirely the fault of white people. It’s not as if you can help being born white in America, any more than I can help being born black in America.
The truth is that America is a country that operates on systems of racism in which we all participate, whether consciously or unconsciously, to our benefit or to our detriment, and that system allows white people to succeed. This system also creates barriers so that minorities, such as black people, have a much harder time being able to do things like vote and get houses and not have to deal with racists and stuff. You know. Casual.
But while you’re gasping at the heat and the steam of the strong truth tea I just spilled,what’s even worse about all of this, if you thought things could get even crappier, is the fact that all of this is exponentially worse for black women. A culture of racism is bad enough, but pairing it with patriarchal structures that intend to undermine women’s advancement is like double-fisting bleach and acid rain.
At the end of the day, if you are a white male, gay or not, you retain so much privilege. What is extremely unfairly denied you because of your sexuality could float back to you, if no one knew that you preferred the romantic and sexual company of men over women. (You know what I’m talking about. Those “anonymous” torsos on Grindr, Jack’d and Adam4Adam show very familiar heterosexual faces to the public.) The difference is that the black women with whom you think you align so well, whose language you use and stereotypical mannerisms you adopt, cannot hide their blackness and womanhood to protect themselves the way that you can hide your homosexuality. We have no place to hide, or means to do it even if we desired them.
In all of the ways that your gender and race give you so much, in those exact same ways, our gender and race work against our prosperity. To claim that you’re a minority woman just for the sake of laughs, and to say that the things allowed her or the things enjoyed by her are done better by you isn’t cute or funny. First of all, it’s aggravating as hell. Secondly, it’s damaging and perpetuating of yet another set of aggressions against us.
All of this being said, you should not have to stop liking the things you like. This is not an attempt to try to suck the fun out of your life. Appreciating a culture and appropriating one are very, very different things, with a much thicker line than some people think, if you use all of the three seconds it takes to be considerate before you open your mouth. If you love some of the same things that some black women love, by all means, you and your black girlfriends go ahead and rock the hell out. Regardless of what our privileges and lack of privileges are, regardless of the laws and rhetoric that have attempted to divide us, we are equal, even though we aren’t the same, and that is okay. Claiming our identity for what’s sweet without ever having to taste its sour is not. Breathing fire behind ugly stereotypes that reduce black females to loud caricatures for you to emulate isn’t, either.
So, you aren’t a strong black woman, or a ghetto girl, or any of that other foolery that some of you with trash Vine accounts try to be. It’s okay. You don’t have to be. No one asked you to be. You weren’t ever meant to be. What you can be, however, is part of the solution.
Check your privilege. Try to strengthen the people around you.