Director's Corner

Release Date: March 24, 2016

Legacy of Women in Innovation

Grace Hopper at the keyboard circa 1960. Photo Credit: Unknown (Smithsonian Institution). Photo on

In March, our nation honors the many invaluable contributions to history, culture, science, and society made possible by brave, innovative, and able women. As Director of the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), I have been privileged to witness firsthand the outstanding work and contributions of many remarkable women who develop and enhance game-changing technologies to improve the way we use and produce energy. From better, safer wellbore cement casings to environmental monitoring innovations, from carbon capture and storage technologies to chemical looping combustion breakthroughs, NETL’s women of innovation are distinguished additions to a long list of female pioneers who have made a significant difference in all branches of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

At NETL, as in most research installations, computers and the imaging and data they provide are at the heart of most innovation. The work of two female scientists played a significant role in making that possible, so it seems fitting for me to recognize their contributions during Women’s History Month. 

The contributions made by Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (1906–1992) are particularly impressive in their impact and reach. In 1934, Hopper was one of only four women to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University. She joined the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1943 to put her education and talent to work assisting the nation in wartime scientific challenges. That’s when she became acquainted with the Mark I electro-mechanical computer, at Harvard’s Cruft Laboratories. It was an acquaintance that quickly turned into a life-long pursuit.

Ada_Lovelace_portrait.jpgAda King, Countess of Lovelace, arguably the world’s first

Hopper’s vision that computer languages should be written in English transformed the way we work with and apply computers. Hopper was the third person to ever program a Mark I, and this experience quickly ignited a passion for programming that led her to invent the first compiler—information that takes the raw material, or source code, and converts it into a usable program similar to today’s executable files. From there, Hopper continued to develop and refine programming languages from mathematical binary codes to English language compilers so that they could eventually be transformed into the user-friendly machines we rely on today. The first English-like data processing language, FLOW-MATIC, resulted from this effort. Hopper helped develop several programming languages, including COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language), which was based on FLOW-MATIC and became the ubiquitous language for business, finance, and administrative systems.

Hopper’s experience with the Mark I computer sparked decades of innovation. The Mark I itself was developed from ideas and principles developed by Charles Babbage (1791–1871) way back in 1837 when he originated the concept of a programmable computer. He called his device the Analytical Engine. It was also the beginning of a legacy of ingenious women programmers. Babbage’s protégé, Ada Lovelace (1815–1852), is widely regarded as the first computer programmer. In a set of notes for Babbage’s Analytical Engine, Lovelace described an algorithm that could be used to direct the machine to calculate a sequence of numbers. What Lovelace described—in 1843—is essentially a computer and software. Her insight extended beyond mere calculations. Lovelace saw the potential of the Analytical Machine to be applied to a wide range of processes, including musical composition.

Hopper and Lovelace are only two examples of noteworthy women pioneers who had a direct impact on the work we do at NETL and the work done in similar research laboratories. There are countless others. It would be impossible to acknowledge all the women who have helped forge our nation’s progress, but I am proud to work side by side with many talented women in science and engineering who are continuing to build the path forward.

As Acting Director of NETL, Sean I. Plasynski, Ph.D., builds on an extensive background in energy as he leads NETL in its mission to enhance the nation’s energy independence and protect the environment for future generations. For more information about Sean Plasynski's experience, please click here.