Innovation enriches our lives, improves our world and makes the impossible a reality. For Evisions, it is the very essence of our company and our clientele. Without innovation, we wouldn’t exist. Our contribution to innovation is quite humble; we build the tools our clients ask us to build, so they can accomplish remarkable things.
But innovation does not occur in a vacuum—we are only able to accomplish what we do because of thousand of years of innovative thinking that has come before us. This month, on October 15th, we celebrated Ada Lovelace Day. Ada Lovelace was a pioneer in mathematical theory during the 19th century. In short, she was a genius, and every year we recognize her contributions (and the contributions of many other oft-overlooked innovators), which have brought us to where we are today.
Historically, Western society has a bad habit of discussing innovation strictly in terms of the contributions of men…more often than not, men of Western descent. Most likely, this is a relic of the Great Man Theory—the widely discredited 19th century idea that a small number of influential, skilled or charismatic men had decisive impacts on our societies that changed them forever (and without which society would have remained stagnant).
For those of us who love history, this is an interesting notion. There is no disputing that Western men have made many great contributions to science, the arts, religion, business and technology. The list is long and impressive:
- Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Locke and Rousseau (great thinkers).
- Caesar, Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, Washington, Lincoln and Churchill (great leaders).
- Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Gershwin and The Beatles (great musicians).
- Michelangelo, Rembrandt, van Gogh and Picasso (great artists).
- Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Moliere, Dickens and Twain (great authors).
- Euclid, Archimedes, da Vinci, Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Einstein (great scientists).
- Gutenberg, Nobel, Bell, Edison, the Wright brothers and Tesla (great inventors).
Yet, a true student of history would reject any list of “great men” as woefully inadequate. For each great man there are thousands of other individuals we rarely recognize. To steal a quote from the fictional Dr. Ian Malcolm from the movie Jurassic Park, in many cases these men “…stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something.” Many people of all genders and ethnicities have helped transform our world for the better. If you haven’t done so already, give Wikipedia a workout by reading a bit about just a few of them:
- Hammurabi: The Babylonian king who invented the concept of a code of laws.
- Catherine the Great: The Enlightened empress of Russia—a pioneer in many areas, including art, politics, and higher education.
- Marie Curie: The only person to win Nobel prizes in two fields of study. Curie developed the theory of radioactivity and discovered two elements. She died of anemia caused by radiation exposure during the course of her studies. Her research notes remain radioactive to this day and are stored in lead-lined boxes.
- Catherine Littlefield Greene: The widow of a Revolutionary War general, she conceived of and suggested to Eli Whitney the idea of the cotton gin.
- Sarah Breedlove Walker: Daughter of slaves, she invented the idea of modern lotions and cosmetics. She created a business model for training, distribution and sales that led her to become the first self-made female millionaire.
- Stephanie Kwolek: The fourth woman to be inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame, she invented the polymers used in Kevlar.
- Granville Woods: Known as the “Black Edison,” he held over 60 patents.
- George Washington Carver: Dedicated to teaching others, his work aided southern states and included, among other things, over 300 products made from the humble peanut.
Given my focus on education and technology, there are a few individuals whose inspiring contributions are worth a special mention as their stories have significance to me. There are so many that it was hard to pick just a few:
- Salman Khan: Created a website (khanacademy.org) with hundreds of mini-lectures on subjects from mathematics to finance. His work in the last few years is helping to transform education (and the grades of my children).
- Hedy Lamarr: Yes, THAT Hedy Lamarr. The beautiful and talented actress and U.S. immigrant also invented “spread spectrum” communications and “frequency hopping,” without which modern innovations such as Bluetooth and cellular phones would not be possible. Lamarr did this work in order to help the U.S. War Department develop torpedoes that would resist German countermeasures.
- Alan Turing: Turing was a British man, but lived a difficult life and was criminally prosecuted and punished by his own country for homosexuality. During WWII he worked tirelessly at Bletchley Park to help break the German Enigma code (and other ciphers). He did groundbreaking work in the field of computer science, including development of the “Turing machine” which is the model for today’s general-purpose computers. Since the field of Computer Science didn’t exist when Alfred Nobel created his famous prize, the Turing Award is widely considered its highest honor.
- Grace Hopper: A Rear Admiral for the U.S. Navy, Hopper invented the first computer programming “compiler” to transform human-readable language into instructions a computer can execute. She is also the mother of the COBOL programming language. Hopper’s accomplishments are so breathtaking she is referred to in the software industry as “Amazing Grace.” Hopper worked for the U.S. Navy well past the mandatory retirement age of 60 and was pressed into service by her country repeatedly after retirement. She was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the highest non-combat award in the U.S. military. She remains the oldest active-duty commissioned officer to have ever served in the U.S. armed forces.
- And, of course, Ada Lovelace: An English mathematician who worked with notables including Charles Babbage, who invented the “Analytical Engine,” a precursor to modern computers. Lovelace died an early death at the age of 36, but during her life she invented the first algorithm that could be processed by the hypothetical Analytical Engine, making her the first “programmer” despite the fact that a programmable device wouldn’t be developed for nearly a century.
So in honor of Ada Lovelace Day, I want to humbly recognize the diverse and amazing people that have enriched my life and made my career possible and rewarding. I have been lucky to be able to stand upon your shoulders.
Who are some innovative thinkers who have influenced your life or your career? Help us add to our list by sharing in the comments section below!