Women 3.0: Erna Hoover

Name: Erna Hoover

Short biography: We’re going a bit old school with today’s profile. Erna Schneider Hoover was born in 1926 in Irvington, New Jersey. The daughter of a dentist and a teacher, Hoover developed an interest in science and mathematics at an early age. She received a bachelor’s degree in medieval history from Wellesley in 1948, and a doctorate in foundations of mathematics from Yale University in 1951. From 1951 to 1954, Hoover was a professor of philosophy and logic at Swarthmore College. In 1953, she married Charles Wilson Hoover, Jr.; they have three daughters and four grandchildren.1, 2, 3

What they do: Currently, Hoover is retired. She’s a member of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, the American Association of University Women and several community groups.3 It’s her earlier work, however, that really made the impact on the history of technology

Why they matter: Hoover started work at Bell Laboratories in 1954 as a senior technical associate. Her initial duties included working on the company’s phone “switching project,” which was actually an early form of computer science. “Using her knowledge of feedback theory and analyzing traffic and pattern statistics, she designed the stored program control—the brains—which senses amount of traffic and imposes an order of call. Hoover's switching system was the first reliable device to use computer techniques, including transistor circuits and memory-stored control programs.”3 Hoover’s work revolutionized technological communication, and for her efforts, she was awarded patent No. 3,623,007, one of the first-ever patents for technological software.

Hoover didn’t let her career keep her from motherhood, either. “Lawyers for Bell Labs handling the patent had to go to her house to visit her while she was on maternity leave so that she could sign the papers.”1

If her contributions to early computer science wasn’t enough, later in her career at Bell, Hoover worked on researching radar control programs of the Safeguard Anti-Ballistic Missile System, which contributed to the end of the Cold War.3 In 1978, she was promoted to Technical Department Head—the first woman ever in this position—and worked with artificial intelligence, databases and other telephone operations software and systems.3

Hoover was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2008.1

How they got where they are: Reportedly, Hoover’s initial interest in math and science was inspired by a biography of Marie Curie. The book showed young Hoover that, even as a woman, she could succeed in a scientific field. Hoover’s career, in a sense, is paying that inspiration forward to another generation (or two or three).

References: 1, 2, 3

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