Margaret Hamilton stands next to the navigation software code she developed for the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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From the brooklyn bridge to the moon: four female engineers who made history


The Brooklyn Bridge is standing thanks to a woman. Other women developed a precursor to Wi-Fi or made it possible for humanity to land safely on the Moon. Despite being the brains behind of some of the greatest inventions and achievements, female engineers have always been shifted to the background or relegated to anonymity. On the occasion of International Women's Day, we remember and recognise the achievements of four female engineers who have played a key role in the history of human technology.

Emily Warren Roebling (1843 - 1903)

Two decades before the first woman graduated with an engineering degree in the United States, Emily Warren Roebling supervised the construction of one of the great monumental construction projects of New York: the Brooklyn Bridge. At first, the person in charge of the work was her father-in-law, the celebrated civil engineer John Augustus Roebling. But after his death, the project was left in the hands of Emily's husband, Washington Roebling, who developed decompression sickness due to the pioneering use of pneumatic caissons for the foundation of the bridge, and he ended up bedridden.

Emily then stepped in and became the first female field engineer. She directed the project with the instructions given by her husband, and in her free time studied civil engineering. She took charge of the completion of the bridge, and on 24 May 1883, she was the first to cross it under the watchful eye of hundreds of people. She climbed into a carriage accompanied by a rooster —a symbol of good luck— on the Brooklyn shoreline and travelled the 1.825 metres that separated it from Manhattan across the East River. After its construction, Emily devoted herself to writing essays on the defence of women's rights and equality in marriage.


Emily Warren Roebling supervised the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Credit: Ernst Keil's Nachfolger

Beulah Louise Henry (1887 - 1993)

With 110 inventions and 49 registered patents under her belt, the American Beulah Louise Henry is considered one of the most prolific self-taught inventors in history. Even as a child, she used to make models and designs with tools and household appliances. In the 1930s, she was given the nickname Lady Edison in analogy to the famous inventor Thomas Alva Edison. Among the machines she built, there is one that is capable of making multiple copies of a document, another to make ice cream and one that can sew without bobbins.

She also created a doll with a built-in radio, some soap-filled children's sponges, an umbrella with different snap-on cloth colours and a handbag with changeable covers to match different outfits. Many of her inventions focused on the new habits of the American middle class, increasingly interested in fashion, personal hygiene or entertainment for children. Henry went on to create two companies in New York and was a consultant to several firms that used her creations, such as the International Doll Company.


Beulah Louise Henry, a pioneer of innovation with an inventive activity compared to that of Edison. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000)

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, better known as Hedy Lamarr, stood out in the 20th century for her role as an actress. She shot more than 30 films, was considered "the most beautiful woman in the world" by director Max Reinhardt and starred in the first film orgasm in a non-pornographic film (Ecstasy, 1933). But this Austrian woman, who left her engineering studies after being attracted by cinema, was much more than a Hollywood star. She was the co-inventor of the technology on which modern Wi-Fi is based.

Lamarr, who fled from a controlling husband to the United, realised that the radio signals that guided US Navy torpedoes were easily jammed by the German army. One afternoon, during the Second World War, she was sitting at the piano with the avant-garde composer George Antheil. She had the idea of applying Antheil's musical techniques to the radio control system of the torpedoes. Thus was born the communication system called "frequency-hopping spread spectrum", which consisted of broadcasting at different frequencies and on which all current wireless technologies such as Wi-Fi, GPS or Bluetooth are based today. In her honor, the celebration of Inventor's Day was established on November 9th (date of her birth) in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.


The wit of the famous actress Hedy Lamarr is behind the development of wifi technology. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Margaret Hamilton (born 1936)

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first human beings to set foot on the Moon in 1969, but this feat would not have been possible without the work of a woman: Margaret Hamilton. At just 33 years old, she directed the design of the computer program used by the computers of the Apollo 11 spacecraft.

Hamilton studied mathematics with a major in philosophy and learned to program on her own. She became the director of the software engineering division at MIT. In fact, she was the first person to coin the term "software engineering". At that time, women were in charge of programming since, being a mechanical task that was carried out with perforated cards, it was seen as equivalent to typing. But in this NASA project, the work also included the development and design of the software.

Leading her team, she was responsible for the error detection and recovery software installed in both the spacecraft's command module and the moon-landing module. A few minutes before reaching the "Sea of Tranquillity", the on-board computer, overloaded by the multitude of tasks it was performing, began to send error messages. With the reboot protection system designed by Hamilton, which allowed incomplete tasks to be interrupted, rebooted and the highest priority tasks carried out, Armstrong was able to complete the Apollo 11 moon landing safely. It was the ingenuity of a woman that allowed one small step for a man and one giant leap for mankind to take place.

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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.

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