Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Invisible Computers


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.

"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."

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".

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)"

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12 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Stories like this are important...as a rebuttal to those who claim that women don't go into computer science or mathematics simply because they aren't interested."

So to rectify this, we're reducing entrance requirements into our Engineering programs (in Canada) and providing discriminatory, gender-based scholarships?

Yep, that will fix the problem all right...

The past cannot be changed, only the future can. Making it easier and more profitable for women to pursue an education in science is discriminatory, any way you twist it. This article is a testiment to how women in science were treated unfairly; I couldn't agree more. However, the current trend of using discrimination against men to rectify events from the mid-1900's seems extremely hipocritcal.

The ENIAC story is to be learned from, so that we, as a people (and a species), can better ourselves in the future and not as a stepping stone to an easier life.

In some parts of the 1900's, women were discriminated against, plain and simple. However, let me tell you of my life. I am an Engineering student that has an 'A' average that cannot apply for many scholarships that require only a 'B+' average because I was born a male. However, women in my field can apply to any/all scholarships (since their are no men-only scholarships). This sounds like discrimination to me.

Ian Rose said...

I had no idea that women were involved in the programming, thinking that they would have been completely excluded at that time. That's really interesting, and I'll certainly drop a few dollars in the fund to keep the documentary going. Thanks for calling attention to this.

John Wilkins said...

What about Colossus in the UK? It was also, I recall, programmed by women.

makita said...

Thank you for this post, I found it through Bora and I posted a link to it on my blog. Hope that's ok.

Peggy said...

Makita: yes, posting a link is fine

John Wilkins: Based on the image on the Wikipedia entry for Colussus it looks like your right, but it doesn't say anything about it in the text. Looks like something to look into further!

Ian Rose: I'm glad you found it interesting.

Peggy said...

Anonymous: I don't know anything about "reducing entrance requirements". If that's the case, then it's a shame. Ultimately most women want to be evaluated for their abilities on equal footing as men.

I do think you have some misperceptions about the hurdles many women have had to face in pursuing mathematics and engineering. While the discrimination is less blatant than it was during WWII, it is certainly still present. All you have to do is read the thread I linked to at Tiny Cat Pants - many women are actively discouraged from pursuing those subjects.

Even women who persist often find themselves entering what is essentially a boy's club, where they are made to feel unwelcome as the lone woman in a group of men. I believe that part of the purpose of the women-only scholarships is to get a "critical mass" of women into fields where they have traditionally been absent.

But the most important reason for women-only scholarships, IMHO, is that there is indeed discrimination against women in the way that fellowship and job applications are evaluated (see, for example, Wenneras and Wold, Steinpreis et al.) which almost certainly also pertains to the way scholarships are awarded. This kind of discrimination is likely not conscious on the part of reviewers, but it means that if a man and woman have equal credentials, the tie goes to the man. That certainly isn't fair either, and scholarships for women (and underrepresented racial groups) tries to balance the playing field.

The fact is that there are many scholarships you can apply for where you have to compete against women, and you should rest assured that you will likely have a natural edge against female applicants with a similar GPA as yours.

Sarah said...

Hi all,

My high school graduating class was of about 100 people and I had grown up with them all. Only one other girl from that class joined engineering. Most had no interest in the field whatsoever. Even the really geeky ones didn't want to have to take phys/calc/algebra/chem in their final year..

Could it be that men are just more interested in Engineering?

As well, is what anonymous said true? Are universities "providing discriminatory, gender-based scholarships" to women? Isn't favoritism what is being fought against?

I'm confused. So isn't providing someone special treatment based on their race/nationality/gender wrong? At least, that's what I was taught...

Sarah

Rochelle said...

I found something interesting too, concerning engineering women in the workplace. Men tend to make 40% greater salary on average. However, that stunning stat comes with a grain of salt. Women, on average, have fewer years of experience in the field, amongst other factors. When you incorporate these factors and adjust the pay-rate accordingly, there is no discernible difference in salary (less than 1%).

http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/issuebrf/sib99352.htm

Cheers,
Rochelle

Pete said...

If women were worried about favoritism in the workplace and in their field, would offering them free money to complete a degree really help them?!

Are 15-year-old women in high school really aware that there is discrimination in the engineering (doesn't seem likely to me - I didn't know it was an issue until I saw the Women in Engineering societies, neither did the girls in my current, 3rd year engineering class).

Another point: In high school, are women discriminated against in their science classes? Well, I've never seen it. So why do women only occupy 25% of the high school students that enroll in physics?

If they only occupy 25% of the students in high school physics, is it fair to assume that they'll only be eligible for 25% of the degree positions that require the physics course? If so, does dangling money in front of women to take course and enter engineering for that purpose really fix the problem of women not wanting to enrol in physics?

http://www.iop.org/activity/diversity/Statistics/Gender/Pre-16/page_25085.html

Not trying to be mean, just been wondering about this for a while.

Pete

cardinal_wolsey said...

fascinating post..

janetleigh said...

Part of the reason these women are not more well-known for their accomplishments concerning the ENIAC housed at Aberdeen Proving Ground may be due to the fact that they were classified personnel, as was my own mother at around the same time period. My mother had a security clearance which barred her from talking about her work there at Aberdeen. She was picked up by a limo at Arlington Farms in Alexandria and driven to and from work at Aberdeen. She worked directly with Admiral King (Kingman? I forget) and several other top brass. I keep telling her that her earlier work is probably unclassified by now and she can now tell me "everything" but she won't, her lips are sealed. She took her oath of secrecy very seriously and I'll probably never know the extent of her wartime contributions. It's a shame, really. So, I wonder if these other women scientists mentioned anything about a nondisclosure oath they signed off on which would have prevented them from talking about their work - at least until the contract was declassified - at any rate. I know this because of my own work on classified contracts and as a former security supervisor for a scientific R&D firm outside DC. Our specialty was seismology and underground nuclear explosions.

BTW, I totally agree with you that women are still being discriminated against in the scientific community. I worked with a very small group of physicists, geophysicists, and seismologists who worked exclusively on government contracts for all the alphabet agencies and I can tell you very few women rose to the top. It's a male-dominated field; the good ol' boy's club as you said (wrote). The project manager always claimed authorship for articles written for journals even when a woman co-wrote it, but also to a lesser degree for other male contributors. (Male scientists have an element of narcissism attached to their "smarts" gene as far as I'm concerned..:) The two women who worked in our group really weren't taken seriously and were pretty much invisible to the guys in our group. Really a shame.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading about these women scientists and hope their stories get disseminated across the 'net. I'll find a way to provide my readers a link to the story, if the opportunity arises. My blog is totally unrelated to science. It's an escape for me. Take care!

mice said...

There is already a documentary about the women of ENIAC and the programmers
at Penn during WWII called Top Secret Rosies, directed by LeAnne Erickson.