Our blog

Lessons in innovation from STEM’s forgotten women


24 November 2017

Ruth Davis

Blogs by author: Ruth Davis, Head of Cyber Security Strategy, BT Security


Successful innovation is easy to spot. Take Silicon Valley or unicorn tech companies for example. But what is that special, elusive mix that enables innovation to thrive? This is much harder to put your finger on. Ruth Davis looks to some of the great female innovators of history and the world changing projects they were involved in, to see what they can tell us about successful innovation today. 

Women who broke the mould 

Unfortunately, women aren’t often referred to when people talk about the great innovators of history. That’s something I’d like to change.

Look at Ada Lovelace, for example. The daughter of Lord Byron, Ada was born in 1815. She studied mathematics and, alongside her tutor, Mary Somerville (another important woman in the history of STEM), she worked with Charles Babbage to develop the Analytical Engine — otherwise known as the world’s first programmable computer engine. Ada is credited with writing the very first computer programme, and realising that anything — music, the alphabet, images — could be turned into numbers. In this way she was the first person to realise the power that computing had to change the way the world worked.

Fast-forward 100 years, and consider the women who worked as codebreakers at Bletchley Park during World War II. While Tommy Flowers and Alan Turing are the best known names from that project, women like Margaret Bullen, Joan Clarke and Mavis Batey were crucial to breaking the Enigma code by developing Colossus — the world’s first electronic computer.

What these women can teach us today

So what can we learn from these great innovators to help us break new boundaries today?

Firstly, innovation is driven by teamwork and collaboration. Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage worked together on a design for a computer in the 1840s. Margaret Bullen, Joan Clarke and Mavis Batey were part of a huge codebreaking team behind Allied success in WWII. With all partnership comes constructive criticism and creative differences, and this leads to improvements and innovation.

Secondly, inspiration for innovation can come from other sectors. Ada Lovelace was influenced by the Jacquard loom (used in weaving) which was controlled by punched cards (a simple language to dictate whether the thread should go up or down at a specific point) — she saw these could be used in computing too. We should be looking at other sectors and industries for inspiration today.

Specific problems are a catalyst for innovation. The codebreakers of WWII had no choice but to try and crack Enigma. The code was reset every night at midnight, so they had to find a fast, reliable way to break the settings every day if they were going to save lives and win the war. Under this immense pressure, they created Colossus. Today, innovation can struggle if it’s not undertaken in partnership with the people who’re facing the same problem you’re trying to solve. For example, universities and academics need to work closely with their sectors to make sure that courses help students to develop the right skills and knowledge. In a similar way, cyber security providers must work closely with customers to ensure they are solving real world problems.

Finally, innovation doesn’t have to be brand new. Innovation can be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Ada Lovelace took Charles Babbage’s work on the Analytics Engine and built on it, expanding its focus from solving mathematical calculations to give us a vision of how computing could, and indeed has, revolutionised the world.

Where next?

This is only a tiny sample of the women throughout history, who’ve pushed innovation to new heights, and not been recognised for that work. Hopefully this blog has given you an idea of the kind of insight that can be gained by looking into the achievements of these women. Who knows, maybe it’ll even spur you on to reach new heights of your own.

Here at BT, we’re also trying to make our mark on innovation. We’re building collaborative partnerships through our Infinity Lab which builds on our rich history of engaging with start-ups and encouraging open innovation. You can find out more about it, here.

We’re also reaching out to find and test the latest ideas via our Cyber Assessment Lab, through which we interact with more than 200 innovators. If you have an exciting cyber security capability that you think will be a game changer for us or our customers, you can email us at: cal.techradar@bt.com.

David Hay, BT’s Head of Heritage and Archives will be talking about the role of women electrical engineers in the Post Office telephone service in WWII at an event called “The History of Women in Engineering in the UK”, on Monday 27th November.