The programmers were largely responsible for the exact performance of ENIAC and many other achievements in both computing and technology.
ENIAC (Nutical Numerical Integrator and Computer) was the world’s first programmable digital and electronic computer. The acronym, which stands for “digital integrated electronic computer,” marks a milestone in the history of computing. What few people know is that the machine was developed by a mostly female team: six women who were the main programmers of the computer that changed the course of information technology. However, his involvement has been largely eclipsed throughout history and began to be recognized several decades later.
On International Women’s Day, March 8, learn the story of ENIAC Kathleen Antonelli, Jan Bartek, Frances “Betty” Holberton, Marilyn Meltzer, Frances Spence, Ruth Teitelbaum, and the trailblazers who helped pave the way for many other women in the technology. market
A brief history of ENIAC
ENIAC was the world’s first large-scale electronic computer. The project was the brainchild of engineers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Electronic Engineering. The goal was to create a machine capable of performing complex calculations in a fraction of the time it would take a human.
To program the ENIAC, the work of a group of six women, it was necessary to use wires and switches to decide what operations to perform, making the process time-consuming and error-prone. Also, the entire computer had to be reprogrammed every time a different task was done. Punched cards were used to store the information.
The US military, interested in improving its war intelligence, decided to sponsor the project and invested, at the time, some US$500,000 in the invention. The idea was that ENIAC could help with the ballistic calculations needed to make ammunition and bombs during World War II, but the invention wasn’t ready until after the conflict ended. Its first public demonstration occurred in 1946, and the following year the ENIAC was held for the first time. In 1955 the machine was decommissioned after being used in various research and development projects.
The computer was huge. It occupied an area of more than 150 square meters, weighed more than 30 tons, and had more than 17,000 vacuum valves and five million hand-soldered joints. Its structure consumed some 200,000 watts of power and enabled ENIAC to perform calculations at much faster speeds than previous mechanical machines.
Shortly after participating in the ENIAC project, Betty Holberton and Jean Bartik were hired by the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation (EMCC), a company focused on developing computers for commercial and military use. They were part of the team to create another machine that marked the history of computing, UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer), considered the first modern commercial computer in the world.
The role of women in the ENIAC project
From its inception until many decades later, the role of women dominated the ENIAC project. The six women involved in the project were not invited to a commemorative dinner after the first demonstration of the machine in 1946, which was a success, nor did they participate in the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the invention.
Frances Bellas (later renamed Frances Spence) and Jean Jennings (later Jean Bartek) were the first women to program ENIAC, a complex job for the time, but precisely executed. Four more programmers joined the ENIAC team: Kathleen McNulty Mochly-Antonelli, Frances “Betty” Snyder Holberton, Marilyn Wiskopf Meltzer, and Ruth Lichtermann Teitelbaum.
At the time he joined the team, Bartik continued: “I had no idea what the job was or what ENIAC was. All I knew was that I could start something new and I thought I could learn and do anything. Anyone could.” .
During ENIAC’s press release, a complex missile trajectory calculation developed by Bartek and Holberton was used. Neither the success of the presentation nor the results obtained with ENIAC were enough for the programmers who were part of the project to be recognized for their time. This happened only decades later.
How it all began
During World War II, there was a shortage of workers, and most men of working age were conscripted to serve as soldiers. Then, in 1942, an advertisement in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin sponsored by the US Army called for female mathematics graduates to work at the Moore School of Electronic Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania.
Kathleen McNulty Mochley Antonelli, Jean Jennings Partick, Frances Elizabeth Snyder, Frances Bellas Spence, Marilyn Wiskopf Meltzer, and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum were among the women hired, along with five men.
They were all recruited by the military to work in the Philadelphia computer department, earning the title of computer assistant. This means that your main task will be to perform long calculations on old mechanical machines. The women received a starting salary of $1,620, double what any secretary earned at the time. This did not necessarily imply recognition, as they were often labeled “non-professionals” or “scientists” simply because of their gender.
Therefore, each of the women involved in the project had to be exceptional in order to be successful. Marilyn Meltzer is an example, since she never missed any of the accounts that were required of her. Her development was not exempt from sexual obstacles, such as the case of a doctor who made a physical visit to Jean Bartek, and invited her to do it in her house.
Legacy and the ENIAC Programmers Project
The contribution of women to the ENIAC project and to the development of information technology in general was essential. They have helped pave the way for female participation in the fields of technology and engineering, and have inspired many other women to pursue similar careers.
In Proving Ground, author Cathy Kleiman tells the story of the six pioneering women, responsible for figuring out how to program the world’s first all-electronic computer, without instruction codes or programming language, since at the time it was just language. Existing machine.
Cathy Kleiman was introduced to the history of the ENIAC programmers during her undergraduate programs at Harvard University. She was looking for role models who could inspire her in her field and she found in the forgotten history of women a stimulus for research. From there, she Cathy produced, in partnership with PBS, the documentary “Computers: The Incredible Story of ENIAC Programmers”, in which the ENIAC programmers tell their story.
Based on the documentary and the book Proving Ground, the ENIAC Programmers Project was created, which aims to rescue and publish the stories of pioneering women in the fields of technology and computing. The project, led by Clement, is currently dedicated to researching the stories of women who worked on the development of UNIVAC. Lectures, group readings and work exhibitions on the history of ENIAC programmers are also promoted.