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Women in Tech: Five contributors to today’s internet

Joe Robinson

October 5th, 2021

Written by

Joe Robinson

Artwork by

Becca Tapert & Flaticon

Category

If you’ve heard of Augusta Ada King, the Countess of Lovelace (known more commonly as Ada Lovelace) you might be wondering who came along next? Another prominent woman in Twentieth Century tech, was the contributor and leader, Grace Hopper. But who came after that? Well, there are several women in tech who made essential contributions to establishing today’s internet –  working on their projects from the 1970s through to the early 1990s.

The following five women were highly influential in connecting communities to the early internet. They also provided training or documentation to help people talk to and help each other across information networks.

1. Introducing an early internet – Pamela Hardt-English

Pamel Hardt-English worked diligently with a community in San Francisco. Together, the community (or commune) they built was Resource One – a large community of people working together and living together, sharing common values. 

Hardt-English had a vision: “If people needed something...they could type it in and get it. If they needed help, if they wanted to share a car, or needed resources, they could get it”. 

It was a vision of a network of easily accessible information, arriving decades earlier than the internet.

How did she and her team achieve it? In 1972, Hardt-English secured a decommissioned but still working SDC-940 mainframe computer, and set up a network. To secure such a powerful piece of hardware at that time would have required determination, which Hardt-English was well known for having in spades.

She and her community worked to connect Resource One to public terminals in San Francisco. One connection they established was to a Teletype Model 33 ASR located in a record store called Leopolds. Visitors to Leopolds could follow the provided instructions to type commands into the Teletype and then receive back information. They could leave messages on a message board stored remotely in the Resource One memory, and check back later to see if anyone replied. 

It was essentially an early digital notice board, and represented a major achievement in connecting people and communities with technology, to share information and knowledge – which is the underlying principle of today’s internet.

2. Searching for information – Elizabeth Jocelyn “Jake” Feinler

Jake Feinler is an information scientist who worked on the early network of computers called ARPANET. Feinler managed the Network Information Centre (NIC), which was an information nexus at the heart of ARPANET.

In 1974, Feinler was responsible for managing a team that contacted and interviewed each office and the staff connected to the ARPANET, which included both universities and other facilities in North America. They controlled the administration of hardware addresses, in a similar way to domain name management in today’s internet.

When the paper directory became too cumbersome, Feinler established a specific server with a directory called WHOIS. Users could run a WHOIS command on the server to discover information about any other organization or user on the ARPANET.

 It basically worked like a very early search function.

Under Feinler’s leadership, the NIC team went on to organise the different hardware on the ARPANET into ‘domains’, and selected the notation ‘.com’ to differentiate hosts on the network. 

The team at the NIC had developed yet another important aspect that supports today’s internet – domain addresses.

3. Designing an influential programming language – Adele Goldberg

In 1973, after earning a PhD in Information Science, Adele Goldberg went to work for Xerox PARC (the same facility that produced the first WYSIWYG). In 1979, she became the manager of the systems concepts laboratory, and worked together with PARC scientists such as Alan Kay, Dan Ingalls, and other designers. The team worked on a new programming language for the different computers available at Xerox PARC: SmallTalk, which was later renamed Squeak.

How influential was SmallTalk? It was a programming language that was tied directly into the development of many of the elements seen in today’s personal computers, such as overlapping windows, and a Graphical User Interface. 

Images of the interfaces built with SmallTalk can be viewed in the Computer History Museum collection. Goldberg also employed some valuable Technical Writing skills, developing the SmallTalk documentation.

4. Developing efficient network bridges – Radia Perlman

Radia Perlman studied mathematics, and moved forward in her career to work on software for networking equipment. Later in her career, Perlman worked on finding a more reliable and effective way for computers to share information.

In 1985, Perlman developed the Spanning Tree Protocol – by developing an algorithm that efficiently connected different hosts on a network.

The protocol worked by finding the most efficient and reliable pathway for computers to contact each other through a network. And as you know, there’s more than one pathway for your computer to retrieve information on a network. Spanning Tree Protocols selects the most efficient pathway to and from the resources on a network. The protocol also closes off any of the less effective pathways.

It was an innovative algorithm for managing network traffic, and Perlman’s contribution was adopted into IEEE standards for bridging computers across the internet. It remains in place to this day.

5. Creating an online community – Stacy Horn

An author and telecommunications specialist with skill and experience in UNIX operating systems, Stacy Horn created an early internet community or salon known as ECHO.

An early adopter and internet community manager, Horn set up ECHO in 1990 as a service that members of the community could access through a Telnet Connection – that is, a method used to connect to a remote host on a network. However, it wasn’t accessed through a browser the way communities are accessed today.

Horn lowered the internet entry barrier by providing training and classes in both UNIX and Telnet commands to help users access the ECHO interface. Some of the Telnet commands users ran were: 

telnet 192.168.0.100 13531

STATUS 5

IAC DO ECHO

Close

ECHO created a community with many voices, and had 2000 members within the first four years of operation, with 40% of those being women. In 1990, and the years following, this was a major step forward in helping to develop internet access equality.

ECHO is still running to this day, and users continue to access the community through a Telnet interface.

Looking forward to the next version

Today’s internet communities, computer networks, and graphical interfaces wouldn’t take the shape they have today if not for the many contributions of Women in Tech, and the deep communities they built and worked within.

The same could also be said for the adoption of the internet and networking technology.

Progress and adoption would not have taken place so quickly from the late 1990s forward if not for the innovative developments introduced by those women across the past decades.

You can read more about diversity and inclusion statistics, with information on change over time, in the introductory post of the TinyMCE Women in Tech series. 

Women in TechCommunity
byJoe Robinson

Technical and creative writer, editor, and a TinyMCE advocate. An enthusiast for teamwork, open source software projects, and baking. Can often be found puzzling over obscure history, cryptic words, and lucid writing.

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