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Pioneering Women Throughout History

This year, the International Women’s Day theme is “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow”, which aims to recognise women who are working to build a more sustainable future. And whilst it’s important to look ahead, we want to acknowledge, the incredible Pioneering women throughout history who have helped shape humanity.

Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson was a black female mathematician who worked on the trajectory analysis for America’s first human spaceflight.  

She worked at the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) Langley laboratory and because of her brilliant mathematical mind, in just two weeks, was moved into a new department in the Flight Research Division. 

In 1962 NASA was preparing for the orbital mission of John Glenn. New computers had been programmed with equations that would control the trajectory of the capsule in Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission, but Glenn was wary of trusting them as they were prone to blackouts.

As part of the pre-flight checklist, it was Katherine’s job to check the maths the computers were relaying to the astronaut as Glen said “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go”. Glenn’s flight was a success and marked a turning point in the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in space. 

Over her career in NASA, she authored or co-authored 26 research reports, worked on Project Apollo’s Lunar Module, the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Technology Satellite. NASA Administrator James Bridenstine described her as, "an American hero - her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten."

Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr, one of the most glamorous stars of the black and white film era was a true technology pioneer and created the foundation for GPS, Bluetooth and WiFi technology. 

Hedy was a gifted mathematician and engineer who, during World War 2, made huge contributions to the war effort by improving torpedo technology. Lamarr co-developed developed the idea of "frequency hopping," with George Antheil, which could encrypt torpedo control signals, preventing enemies from jamming them and sending the torpedoes off course. 

Lamarr and Antheil were granted a patent for the idea in 1942, the US Navy ignored their technology for 20 years, finally putting it to use during a 1962 blockade of Cuba.  

Since then, though, Lamarr's spread-spectrum technology has become the foundation for the portable devices that we use every day, for which she was inducted into the National Inventor's Hall of Fame in 2014. 

Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart was an American Pioneer in female aviation, who set many flying records and championed the advancement of women in aviation. Born in 1897 she defied traditional gender roles from a young age, choosing an auto repair course when she briefly attended college.  

During World War I, she served as a Red Cross nurse’s aide in Toronto and only started flying aged 24 years old. She passed her flight test in December 1921 and gained her first record a year later. Earhart was awarded “The Distinguished Flying Cross” by the US Congress for being the first woman to fly solo above 14,000 feet.  

She became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932, and the first person ever to fly solo from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland in 1935. 

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