Erna Hoover is recognized for being one of the first women pioneers in computer technology. She designed a switching system for phone traffic, and was awarded one of the earliest software patents for her work.
Born June 19, 1926, in Irvington, New Jersey, Erna Schneider and her younger siblings, a brother who died from polio at age five, and a sister, were raised by their dentist father and former teacher mother in South Orange, where Hoover attended public school. An active child, Hoover enjoyed swimming, sailing, and canoeing in the Adirondacks, and was always welcome in the boys' softball games. Interested in science at an early age, Hoover read Marie Curie's biography, which taught her that women could succeed despite the odds and the prevailing wisdom of the time.
Graduating from Wellesley College in 1948 as a Phi Beta Kappa and Durant Scholar, Hoover earned her B.A. in classical and medieval philosophy and history, with honors. She went on to Yale University for her Ph.D. in philosophy and foundations of mathematics, and her 1951 dissertation was titled "An Analysis of Contrary to Fact Conditional Sentences."
Hoover went on to teach philosophy and logic at Swarthmore College until 1954, when she joined Bell Laboratories as a senior technical associate. Promoted in 1956, Hoover entered into Bell Labs' internal training program the following year, which was the equivalent of a master's degree in computer science. The existing switching systems were electronic, and the company realized the importance of the then new computer technology.
After completing her training, Hoover was assigned to work on the switching project, which would replace the unreliable electronic relay circuitry in thousands of offices with special computers. Because even in the space of only one hour an office can process over 200,000 traffic requests, the switching systems would often become overwhelmed if a larger number of requests were made simultaneously, causing the system to freeze up. Hoover's background proved invaluable, since symbolic logic has applications in switching circuit design. 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. Technological communication became revolutionized.
For her Feedback Control Monitor for Stored Program Data Processing System, Hoover was awarded patent #3,623,007 in November of 1971, one of the first software patents ever issued. The application was made in 1967, while Hoover was on maternity leave, and the patent lawyers had to bring the papers to her home for a signature.
Hoover was promoted to supervisor and was able to research radar control programs of the Safeguard Anti-Ballistic Missile System, which, designed to intercept intercontinental ballistic missile warheads, helped contribute to the ending of the cold war. In 1978, Hoover was the first woman to ever be promoted to Technical Department Head, a position she would retain until her retirement in 1987. Her department applied artificial intelligence techniques, large databases, and transaction systems in order to support telephone operations through the use of software.
Hoover's accomplishments are all the more notable when the prevailing wisdom of the 1950s is considered--chiefly, that women belong in the home. In fact, Hoover had been unable to find tenure-track college teaching due to her gender and marital status, which is what prompted her to join Bell Laboratories. Hoover's husband, Charles Wilson Hoover, Jr., whom she married in 1953, was extremely supportive of her work and pleased that his wife had career interests. The couple both worked at Bell Labs, while excellent care was found for their three daughters, born in 1956, 1959, and 1967. Despite the fact that many suggested her children would turn out badly, Hoover proudly states that "in fact, all have gone to good colleges and pursued graduate work."
Hoover is committed to education and research, and has served on the boards of many higher education organizations in New Jersey. In addition, she is a member of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, the American Association of University Women, and several community groups. Hoover was also the recipient of the Wellesley College Alumni Achievement Award. In her free time, the Hoovers enjoy their four grandchildren, and are active hikers, skiers, travelers, and tennis players.
"Wellesley to Honor Jersey Scientist." The Star-Ledger. (February 14, 1990).
"Inventors-Erna Schneider Hoover." http://web.mit.edu/afs/athena.mit.edu/org/i/invent/www/inventorsA-H/hoover.html
Kiser, Helene Barker, interview with Erna Hoover conducted July 23, 1999.