Google "Doodles" give women in science and technology their dues

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 December, 2013, 11:24am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 December, 2013, 11:41am

They say you can’t rewrite the past. But perhaps you can re-doodle it? That’s what Google vice-president Megan Smith is hoping.

She’s using the search engine’s homepage “Doodles” to celebrate the birthdays of women in science and technology who have been overlooked by history.

She dreamed up the idea while visiting  British  Prime Minister David Cameron at his official 10 Downing Street residence  in 2011, when a painting of a woman caught Smith’s eye. It was  Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. Smith was stunned to learn she was the world’s first computer programmer. Born in 1815,  Lovelace was  a pioneer in computing, long before the computer was built. In 1843, she published extensive notes on the analytical engine, which included the first published algorithm for a computer.

But her intellectual leap has largely been lost by history; something the elegant Google Doodle on her 197th birthday hoped to change.

Then there’s Amelia Earhart, the first female pilot to cross the Atlantic.  If you were one of the billion people who used Google on July 24 last year, you probably saw the Doodle of a light aircraft. Earhart was also a campaigner for women’s rights, awarded the US Distinguished Flying Cross and set countless aviation records at a time when flying was still a mystery. 

Remember the Doodle on May 28 of the secretary wearing headphones? That was for the 100th birthday of  Ruby Violet Payne-Scott, the first female radio astronomer. Amid  manpower shortages in the second world war, she devised radars that protected Australia’s coastline. Her  work was key in beating the Japanese out of the Pacific. Later, she discovered how to track radio emissions from the sun and stars.

Perhaps you noticed the Doodle for  Shakuntala Devi. The calculator display with Devi’s face celebrated the 84th birthday of the Indian woman known as the “Human Computer”.

The late astrologer  could do complex calculations at lightning speed without a calculator. In 1980, she entered the Guinness Book of Records when she successfully multiplied two 13-digit numbers chosen at random by mathematicians. She toured the world  and won several speed contests against computers, including  calculating the cube root of 188,132,517.

A spokesman for Google says: “Too often, the contributions of women in science and technology are left untold, and fade from view. We hope our Doodles will honour these remarkable women’s lives and work and, in turn, inspire more women to enter the fields of science and technology.”

Smith believes there are oodles of Doodles left to do. For example, she laments that despite Joanna Hoffman  and Susan Kare  being a core part of the original Apple Macintosh development team, they were  absent from the recent Steve Jobs biopic.

She thinks it is equally “astonishing” that most  do not know about  Katherine Johnson. “All of us need to know that there was an African-American woman in the  team [who calculated the trajectory for the Apollo 11 mission to the moon],” she says. With a simple Doodle, maybe we all soon will.