I'm a computer user, not a programmer, and I'm rather fuzzy on the history of computers. However, I have heard of ENIAC, which, as Wikipedia puts it, was "the first purely electronic, Turing-complete, digital computer capable of being reprogrammed to solve a full range of computing problems". It was constructed during World War II at the University of Pennsylvania. It was a behemoth compared to the laptop I'm using at the moment.
It contained 17,468 vacuum tubes, 7,200 crystal diodes, 1,500 relays, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors and around 5 million hand-soldered joints. It weighed 30 short tons (27 t), was roughly 8.5 feet by 3 feet by 80 feet (2.6 m by 0.9 m by 26 m), took up 680 square feet (63 m²), and consumed 150 kW of power. Input was possible from an IBM card reader, while an IBM card punch was used for output.It's hard to imagine operating such a machine, let alone programing it. The trouble back then was that male mathematicians were scarce due the war, so they had to turn to women to get the job done. A team of six young women were the first ENIAC programmers, but their contribution has been largely forgotten. From a recent ABC News report:
At 83, Betty Jean Jennings Bartik -- a devoted bridge player and grandmother of five -- had a secret past that was invisible to many who knew her.
Her grandson Alex knew her story. He stormed out of school one day when his teacher refused to believe his gray-haired granny was a computer pioneer who had calculated firing tables and ballistic trajectories during World War II.
The boy's parents had to explain to the teacher that Bartik and five other women had, indeed, legally hacked the world's first programmable computer, converting it into a stored machine and eventually helping to usher in the digital age.
"She was dumbfounded," said Bartik.
So, too, were the historians, who for a half century never acknowledged the wartime contributions of the six women who programmed the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) and made programming easier and more accessible to those who followed.
The team included:
- Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli had a degree in math from Chestnut Hill College for Women in Philadelphia. Antonelli married ENIAC co-inventor John Mauchly, resigning her post at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds Ballistics Research Laboratory. In the 1980s she wrote articles and gave talks about her experience. In 2005 Antonelli and good friend and co-programmer Bartik talked about their experiences at WITI New York, which you can watch online. She died in 2006.
- Jean Jennings Bartik had a degree in math from Northwest Missouri State Teachers College. After working on ENIAC, she went on to work on the BINAC and UNIVAC I computers. Northwest Missouri State University honored her achievements by naming their computing museum after her. In 2005 Bartik and Antonelli talked about their experiences at WITI New York, which you can watch online.
- Betty Snyder Holberton studied English and journalism at the University of Pennsylvania, but was apparently a natural at programming. From Wikipedia:
She was the inventor of the mnemonic instruction set (called C-10) for the BINAC, which Grace Hopper described as "the basis for all subsequent programming languages." It has been said that in creating this, she started the movement away from switch assemblies and towards keyboards as the primary input device for computers. She also wrote the first generative programming system (SORT/MERGE), and the first statistical analysis package (for the 1950 US Census). She participated in the early standards development for the COBOL and Fortran programming languages.In 1997 she received the Ada Lovelace award for her achievements in programming. She died in 2001.
- Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer studied something(?) at Temple University. She left the ENIAC project in 1947 to get married.
- Frances Bilas Spence majored in math and minored in physics at Chestnut Hill College. In 1947 she married Homer Spence, an electrical engineer assigned to the project, and she resigned to raise a family.
- Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum had a bachelor's degree in math from Hunter College. She traveled with the ENIAC project when it moved to the Ballistic Research Laboratory at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds and helped train the next group of ENIAC programmers. She died in 1986.
Shockingly, the only one of the six initially invited to the ENIAC 40th anniversary celebration at the University of Pennsylvania was Kathleen McNulty Mauchly, and then only as the wife of inventor John Mauchly. How could this group of women have been forgotten for so long? As Wired noted in 1997, when they were inducted into the Women in Techonology International Hall of Fame:
But although they were skilled mathematicians and logicians, the women were classified as "sub-professionals" presumably due to their gender and as a cost-saving device, and never got the credit due to them for their groundbreaking work.Kathy Kleiman, a former programmer herself, is trying to rectify that. Kleiman, along with Academy Award-winning documentary maker Susan Hadary and head of the University of Maryland's Center for Women in Information Technology Claudia Morrell, is producing a documentary on these six women titled "Invisible Computers: The Story of the ENIAC Programmers".
"Somebody else stood up and took credit at the time, and no one looked back," explains Anna van Raaphorst-Johnson, a director of WITI. "It's a typical problem in a male-dominated industry. And there's still a lot of frustration with men taking credit for women's ideas - it doesn't seem to have changed much over the last 50 years."
As ABC News reported, Kleiman began her interest in the ENIAC programmers when she was a Harvard undergraduate.
While reading a biography of an Army captain who found funding for ENIAC, Kleiman discovered a 1940s photo of women at a 9-foot tall computer. A computer historian told her those were "just refrigerator ladies" who had been posed in front of the machine "to make it look good."
"They looked knowledgeable to me, and I made it my job to track them down," said Kleiman.
She has since spent years collecting oral histories and hopes that the documentary will help keep their story from being forgotten. Stories like this are important, not only so an important part of our technological history is not forgotten, but as a rebuttal to those who claim that women don't go into computer science or mathematics simply because they aren't interested. If you'd like to help, you can make a donation to help support the production ENIAC programmers documentary.
On that note, Aunt B. at Tiny Cat Pants is asking for stories about womens' experiences in mathematics and computer science. It's in response to a commenter who claims that the reason for the gender gap in computer science is simply that "not as many women wanted to be computer scientists as men". Her commenters have already responded with a number of interesting (and maddening) personal stories.
ETA: Did you comment at Tiny Cat Pants? Science writer Jennifer Ouellette is wondering if she can include your story in a book she's writing about women and math.
Image: "Two women operating the ENIAC's main control panel while the machine was still located at the Moore School. "U.S. Army Photo" from the archives of the ARL Technical Library. Left: Betty Jennings (Mrs. Bryant) Right: Frances Bilas (Mrs. Spence)"
Tags: ENIAC, Invisible Computers, WWII, women in science, Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Jean Jennings Bartik, Betty Snyder Holberton, Frances Bilas Spence , Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum<