The Women and People of Color Who Invented the Internet


Written by Tara L. Conley

A Sunday New York Times article by David Streitfeld has the feminist and tech worlds up in arms. Reporting on a sexual harassment suit filed by a junior partner in a venture capital firm, Streitfeld begins by proclaiming that “MEN invented the Internet” (those CAPS are his). I came across Streitfeld’s article after a friend suggested I check out tech journalist Xeni Jardin’s Twitter feed. Jardin’s response to Streitfeld:

WTF: “MEN invented the internet.” I’m sorry, did NYT just breeze past half a century of women in computer technology?

Herein lies the issue: Though Streitfeld primarily covers Ellen Pao’s lawsuit, he undermines his piece by leading with an emphatic and incorrect statement about men as sole inventors of the Internet. I’m not certain if Streitfeld was being tongue-in-cheek or if he simply has a narrow view of Internet history. But his article does incite, albeit unintentionally, necessary dialogue about the roles women–and racial and ethnic minorities–have played in Internet innovation. While some apparently assume that men alone developed the Internet, a quick glance at the Internet Hall of Fame’s 2012 inaugural inductees and the Early Internet Leaders list prove otherwise. (I also recommend reading History of the Internet).

In reality, the genesis of the Internet was a collaborative effort. It took decades of developments in computer programming and network technology. We can’t let the current cult of tech fandom around “white” men–such as Steve Jobs, whom Streitfeld name checks–obscure the women and the racial and ethnic minorities from around the world who contributed to the birth of the Internet.

But I get it. For those who want to trace the Internet to a specific point of origin, there’s a tempting one to be had: the work of DARPA, a military research program that in 1969 launched ARPANET, the packet switching network that is the foundation of the modern-day Internet. Since the early Internet was a project of the U.S. military, we credit its development to a government institution primarily headed by men (although Elizabeth Feiner also pioneered the early ARPANET platform). Even if we focus more broadly on the late ’60s and ’70s development of the network protocols that shaped early Internet platforms, we still find mostly men—with the exception of Radia Perlman, a.k.a the “Mother of the Internet.” The relative absence of women and racial and ethnic minorities during this period of tech innovation is not surprising given the oppression these groups faced in both public and private spheres, which largely kept them out of the field.

But to zero in on the DARPA era is to accept a myopic view of Internet history. The Internet was enabled by more than the development of electrical and optical networking infrastructure; it also required programming-language innovations, which eventually enabled more sophisticated communication to occur between networks. If we zoom back out and survey the computer programming landscape of the early 20th century, we see women such as Grace Hopper, who developed COBOL, a foundational language of web programming still in use today. To discuss early innovation of the Internet is to recognize that women also led the way in shaping computer and network technology.

That said, it isn’t necessarily productive to frame conversations about Internet innovation by which gender or race is primarily responsible for its inception, given that the origin of the Internet is about the ideas of many people. While we chuckle upon hearing that Al Gore invented the Internet 30 years after the infrastructure of the Internet was already in place, there is a sense in which Gore was a pioneer of the Internet: not because he invented codes and protocols, but rather because he sponsored legislation during the ’90s that funded public access to the Information Superhighway. If we can credit Gore as an Internet innovator despite having nothing at all to do with developing its infrastructure three decades prior, then surely we can credit women whose development of early coding language, network protocol and ARPANET influenced networked infrastructure pre-, during and post-DARPA. Certainly we can credit Ada Lovelace, a mathematician of the 19th century who is considered the world’s first computer programmer. And, of course, there’s an entire history of mathematics we can link to the African Diaspora!

You get the point.

The history of the Internet is untidy and perhaps best understood as a web—opposed to a timeline—of development. When we acknowledge that the history of the Internet is as interconnected as the medium itself, we recognize that women and men of various backgrounds contributed to what we now know as the modern-day Internet.

This post was originally published by Ms. Magazine.


Related Stories:

Ellen Pao’s Sexual Harassment Lawsuit Rattles Silicon Valley

Men Are People; Women Are Objects

US Female Farmworkers: Silent Victims of Sexual Violence


Photo of Grace M. Hopper from Wikimedia Commons

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Rainbow W.
.2 years ago

I was first assigned to NAVDAC (Naval Data Automation command) before being reassigned to Special Warfare. Not only did I meet Admiral Hopper she was a close friend of a professor in college and I worked under her for a time (she was called out of retirement to straighten out NAVDAC, in her absence people seriously fubared the place and when I came it was chaos). I learned a LOT from her and in my opinion she made computers what they are today. She not only was instrumental in creating many comp languages, but she championed compilers. Back in our day compilers were slow and messy, yet without them you had to practically program the whole screen (I have seen output that looked like war and peace.) The old timers claimed compilers just slowed you down; if you wrote it once (and right) it was faster and more precise. Now compilers make the language; one can spit out an app in a fraction of the time with a comparable micro code. Thank you Admiral Hopper! She was a genius. She needs a statue or something.

Teresa Wlosowicz
Teresa W.2 years ago

Irene, I suppose it's white women on the one hand and people of colour of both sexes on the other.

Teresa Wlosowicz
Teresa W.2 years ago

thank you

Irene S.
Irene S.2 years ago

Women and PEOPLE?

Alan Lambert
Alan` Lambert2 years ago

Admiral Hopper is a legend in the industry and the legends say (though they're probably not true) that she was the one that found the moth inside one of the first ENIACs that was the first computer "bug".

And many forget that Ada Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron, the poet. So if you hear her referred to as "Lady Ada Byron, that is correct too...

June Lacy
June Lacy3 years ago


J.C. H.
Jc Honeycutt3 years ago

Thanks for your article. It reminded me that a significant number of my fellow female students at Duke Univ. in the early 1960s majored in computer programming, as that was one of the very few fields where women were hired (and paid) comparably with men.

Mari Garcia
Mari Garcia3 years ago

John M, that is because women keep getting stuck behind them.

Wesley Struebing
Wesley Struebing3 years ago

Past Member, you are correct that COBOL woulds make a poor language to build the internet around, but I think you;re missing the point a bit. Her ground-breaking work in developing (no - she didn't do it single-handedly) a high-level language paved the way for other languages and constructs that DID (and do impact) the creation of the internet.

If I sound like a cheerleader for Adm. Hopper, I am. I met her and had the pleasure of listening to a talk she gave a group of us (too) many years ago. I still have my microsecond. Remarkable person!

Past Member
Past Member 3 years ago

Not to take anything away from Grace Hopper, but COBOL is a business-oriented programming language that would hardly be used for development of the Internet.