May 06, 2024

Women and Technology: History of Oppressed Ingenuity! 

Written by: Arnel Šarić, Community Manager
King's College London, May 6, 1952. Two individuals dressed in white sit in the Department of Biophysics and direct an X-ray beam at a tiny DNA sample. This beam will shine for the next 60 hours, and the scattered rays will create a blurry photograph of a shaded circle with minimal details arranged in the shape of the letter X.
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The photograph will be labeled with the number 51. Its author is chemist Rosalind Franklin, assisted by student Ray Gosling. This photograph will prove to be an extremely significant, if not the most significant, piece of evidence that guided scientists toward a real understanding of the nature of DNA, namely its spiral structure.

But instead of celebrating Rosalind Franklin's name from the moment she delved into the essence of human existence, a treacherous attempt followed to deny Franklin's right to a deserved place in scientific history. Her colleague, molecular biologist Maurice Wilkins, showed the photograph to James Watson and Francis Crick without Franklin's knowledge. Watson and Crick used Franklin's work and constructed the structural model of DNA.

Although Rosalind should have been recognized as one of the most important scientists of all time by all parameters, her role was only acknowledged later by the scientific and secular communities. Franklin spent the last five years of her life studying plant viruses, and then cancer took her life in 1958. As usual, life's injustice was followed by an insult: four years later, Watson, Wilkins, and Crick shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their achievements in discovering DNA. Rosalind Franklin's name was not on that list. 
The story of Rosalind Franklin is just one of those that serve as evidence of the importance of women in STEM fields and the injustice that has accompanied women in technology since ancient times. This injustice has extinguished who knows how many brilliant female minds or covered them with the dust of ignorance long enough that they cannot enjoy the fruits of their labor and the respect they deserve in their lifetimes.

This text aims to demonstrate, through example, how often genius will clash with misunderstanding and fear.

We started our story in 1952, but now we are heading to the period between 350 and 370 AD... 

Bold, Stubborn, Brilliant Hypatia

Alexandria, a city in what is now Egypt, was considered the center of Hellenistic culture and science. It was a place of immense wonders, like the greatest treasure trove of the ancient world, the legendary Library of Alexandria, whose inexhaustible knowledge was burned and destroyed multiple times.

Alexandria was home to many great names in science and culture, primarily men. Mathematicians such as Eratosthenes, Euclid, Heron, and Pap lived in Alexandria. Among the famous residents of Alexandria were Queen Cleopatra and Catherine of Alexandria, who was declared a Catholic saint and martyr.

It is hard to imagine that among the significant scientific figures of Alexandria, there were no other women besides the scientist Hypatia; instead, it seems that the ravages of time, guided by males mostly, did not treat the memory of women overly gently. Hypatia was a Greek scientist who devoted her life to mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy. Her works have not been preserved, so it isn't easy to know the extent of her scientific achievements. Her father, Theon, was her teacher in mathematics and astronomy, while it is assumed that Antoninus was her teacher in philosophy.

Hypatia did not miraculously appear in Raphael's fresco, The School of Athens, located in the Vatican Palace. In it, she is depicted as the only woman surrounded by men who have left an indelible mark on science and culture. The few testimonies about her life and work in science support this.

In Ptolemy's "Almagest," Hypatia's father authored a commentary. Next to the title of the third book is a note that the version was checked by "the philosopher Hypatia, daughter of Theon." Hypatia's name is also mentioned as the author of a commentary on two mathematical works, Diophantus's "Arithmetica" and Apollonius of Perga's "On The Cutting-off of a Ratio," as well as the treatise "Canon of Kings."

Her scientific activity also extended into the realm of measuring instruments. It is assumed that she was involved in producing the astrolabe, a precursor to the sextant. The astrolabe was a measuring instrument used to display the movements of celestial bodies.

Hypatia's dedication to science, her rejection of marriage ideas and adaptation to secular life, and her open expression of disagreement with the growing forces of religious power inevitably led to the end of her life. Hypatia was brutally massacred by members of the brotherhood Parabalani by sharp pieces of pottery. 

Classical Beauty, Timeless Wisdom

Hypatia's life story inspired the film Agora. However, among the famous women who have made significant contributions to technological discoveries, one's life was truly a cinematic story—in every possible way. 

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born in Vienna in 1914. After a brief film career in Europe marked by the controversial Czechoslovak erotic film Ecstasy, Hedy Kiesler fled her pre-war country and a tumultuous marriage to an arms manufacturer, continuing her career in the United States under the auspices of the MGM film studio.

It would be incorrect to say that her physical beauty, often described as "classic," was not one of the main reasons why Hedy Lamarr became a recognizable face of Hollywood's Golden Age. However, despite her undeniable contribution to American and global culture, Hedy Lamarr entered historical annals primarily based on her contributions to innovation.

At a party in 1940, Lamarr met George Antheil, a writer, composer, and inventor. Far from the idea of the "beautiful doll" that haunted her until her death and which Lamarr even accepted for a higher purpose, a young, strong, and ambitious woman realized the darkness that had begun to engulf the world. Most likely, she felt uncomfortable nestled in the safety of Hollywood but also felt a sense of responsibility, considering that her Europe was burning. 

The Piano as Inspiration

Antheil was already a recognized innovator. His "Appareil et papier pour l'inscription de la musique," as well as his work on the machinery that characterized the sound of the Dadaist film "Ballet Mécanique," boosted Lamarr and her creativity. Together with Antheil, Hedy Lamarr began working on a new way of communication.

The idea was for the receiver on the torpedo and the transmitter on the airplane or ship to change frequencies together to prevent the interception of fired torpedoes. In late 1940, their sketches received approval, and Lamarr and Antheil continued their work.

Antheil noticed that the rapid and frequent frequency changes greatly resembled mechanical pianos. Piano rolls were made of paper or metal and bore markings that caused a change in the note. In Lamarr's device, these strips would carry markings for changing frequencies and the time of change. As a tribute to this unique mechanism, Lamarr and Antheil set the device to 88 frequency changes, the same as the number of keys on a piano.

The "Secret Communication System" was patented in the United States under number 2,292,387 in August 1942. In addition to the paper tape, it contained a timing mechanism that allowed the tapes on the transmitter and receiver to move simultaneously. If this did not happen, synchronization would occur. Additionally, the device transmitted fake signals to enhance protection against frequency jamming. 
Perhaps the course of World War II itself would have been somewhat different if human stupidity had not stopped the brilliant invention in its tracks. Before the patent was issued, the Navy reviewed the documents and refused to use Lamarr's invention. They justified this by the patent size, although Antheil later testified that during the review, they stopped reading the project documentation when they saw the word "piano" and were not interested in anything else.

Antheil returned to composing music, and Lamarr was advised to use her status to sell war bonds. Military officials' misogyny defeated only themselves, while the brilliant Lamarr achieved another victory. She toured cities and raised over $25 million.

The unused patent expired in 1959, the year George Antheil died. The patent was used for the first time during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the mid-1980s, the secrecy classification was removed as the global market made new progress in the field of home electronics.

This marks the beginning of an explosion of innovations based on Hedy Lamarr's work. Frequency-hopping technology became the basis for technologies now fundamental to life, such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Hedy Lamarr's invention is one of the reasons why today's concept of mobile phones and wireless microphones is what it is.

In 1997, Lamarr (along with Antheil, whose name was not mentioned but is believed to be a co-winner) received the annual Electronic Frontier Foundation Award, along with Finnish computer scientist Johan Helsingius and President of the Center for AI and Digital Policy Marc Rotenberg. In Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, the homeland of Hedy Lamarr, November 9 is celebrated as Tag der Erfinder, or Inventors' Day, as a tribute to everything she did for the global community.

Hedy Lamarr passed away in 2000, having earned literally nothing from her career as an innovator but with an increasing recognition of the importance of her ideas and patents. 

(Un)Comfortable Statistics

As a member of the eight-person Marketing department at Klika, where six women and two men work, I could make a mistake and assume that there is no gender gap or that even positive discrimination has begun to take on forms of negativity. However, I will not because the field data still indicates a significant discrepancy between the number of women and men in the technology world today.

According to data published on the British Council's website, "the share of women in the IT sector today is between 20 and 30 percent, and it is predicted that in the next 5-10 years, this share will even reach 40 percent." There is a large gap in information and communication technologies, which accompanies other alarming and seemingly indelible differences, such as salaries for the same positions and opportunities for career advancement.

Currently, the percentage of female employees at Klika is 39% of the total number of employees. This is the result of continuous and dedicated work on strengthening ideas of equality. Judging by the data from the British Council, which states that "in Bosnia and Herzegovina, about 25 percent of employees in the IT sector are women," Klika surpasses the average in Bosnia and Herzegovina but also global giants like Google, which, according to a report from 2022, employed 33.9% women.

A historical overview of continuous female involvement in the world of technology through three examples and presenting what is today is actually our way of clearly indicating that we understand what once was. Today is better than yesterday, but we are far from ideal. We are on the path of creating a pathway for new girls and boys, understanding that we have a responsibility to leave them a world in which they will be equal, obligated to lead and change for the better... together.