NCWIT is excited to announce Dr. Erna Schneider Hoover as the 2023 Pioneer Award recipient for her role in revolutionizing the modern telephone system.
Dr. Hoover was born in Irvington, New Jersey and graduated from Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey and from Wellesley College with a double major in Classical and Medieval History and Philosophy. She received a Ph.D. at Yale University in Philosophy, including symbolic logic and foundations of mathematics. She spent three years teaching various branches of philosophy at Swarthmore College. While there she married Charles Hoover, Jr., a physicist whom she had met at Yale.
In 1954 when he joined Bell Telephone Laboratories, she moved with him to Summit, New Jersey. After a futile search in the New York area for a tenure track position in philosophy, she also joined Bell Laboratories. She found herself pioneering along with everyone else at the dawn of the computer enterprise, and pioneering as a woman in engineering, a field almost entirely dominated by men.
She broke through three glass ceilings, beginning with a promotion to the professional level Member of Technical Staff. She was originally assigned to help an engineer write a book on “Systems Engineering”, the term that Bell Labs used for the initial overall assessment of a project. She was home on leave with her first daughter when her boss asked whether she was coming back to work. She told him she would if she were promoted to the level of professional engineer. He agreed.
At that time, in 1954, Bell Labs was overwhelmed with the volume of calls coming through their system, and wanted to replace their hard-wired mechanical switching system with something more complex and efficient. Dr. Hoover developed a solution that used a computer to monitor incoming calls at different times and adjusted the call acceptance rate accordingly. This intervention reduced the risk of overload in call processing. The principles of this system are still widely used.
Since few people knew anything about computers, the Labs needed to set up an in-house teaching program. When she learned about this effort, she persuaded her boss to let her participate. After finishing the program she joined the team working on the Number 1 ESS [“Electronic Switching System] computer. She wrote the specifications for the instruction set for the computer. Following that she wrote the specifications for the operating system. As a result she broke through the second glass ceiling: she was promoted to technical supervisor, the first woman to do so at Bell Labs.
She then invented an algorithm enabling the computer to cope with telephone traffic overload, an algorithm which the Labs patented — one of the first patents issued for software. Because of this patent, Dr. Hoover was inducted in the National Inventors’ Hall of Fame.
She broke through the third glass ceiling when she was promoted to Technical Department Head, the first woman to reach this rank at Bell Labs. She managed several groups of programmers who were working on the U.S. Anti-Ballistic Missile system called Safeguard.
Thanks to a supportive husband and a wonderful nanny/housekeeper she was able to combine her engineering career and home-making for her husband and three daughters. Once the daughters grew older she was able to volunteer on several non-profit boards. She served on the New Jersey Board of Higher Education and the board of Trenton State College, now called the College of New Jersey. During her time there the college became known for its academic excellence. It offers an affordable option for all New Jersey citizens. In 2020, the College awarded her an honorary degree, “Doctor of Humane Letters” for services to higher education in New Jersey.