Long before Gates or Jobs, 6 women programmed the first digital computer

Ester Gerston and Gloria Gordon work on the ENIAC computerU.S. Army/ARL Technical Library Archives

You’d never know from the history books, but the job of programming the first computer fell on a team of six young women

Digital Trends, March 1, 2019

The first computer had a strange, fascinating beginning.

Its construction in the 1940s marked a major milestone in computing’s early history, being involved with research into the hydrogen bomb. It’s celebrated every year on February 15 (ENIAC Day), but it’s just as appropriate to pay it some attention during Women’s History Month in March.

You’d never know from the history books, but the job of programming the first computer fell on a team of six young women. Their contribution to its success was largely glossed over in the years that followed, but all of that has changed. The truth about how the first computer was programmed is a story of that needs to continue to be retold.

The Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer, or ENIAC, was the world’s first electronic digital computer, a landmark accomplishment on our journey towards the technological era we’re living in at present. Financed by the United States Army, it would prove to be an invaluable tool in calculating artillery firing tables and early research into the hydrogen bomb.

The creation of ENIAC is a remarkable story in its own right, but there’s an extra facet hidden just beneath its surface. While the design of the computer is credited to John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert of the University of Pennsylvania, the programming of the system fell to a remarkable group of women: Fran Bilas, Betty Jennings, Ruth Lichterman, Kay McNulty, Betty Snyder, and Marlyn Wescoff.

Despite the trailblazing work the six women did, they’re likely not names that you’re familiar with. Back then, computers were programmed through a physical system of adjusting switches and cables manually — debugging a program meant climbing inside the ENIAC in search of faulty connections. A new program had to first be sketched out on paper, then implemented with extreme precision. Setting up a single calculation could take days, and a full program could take weeks.

The programmers were picked for the task because of their acumen calculating ballistics tables with a desk calculator and a differential analyzer before the ENIAC could be implemented. However, the technical mastery required to operate such a system wasn’t thought of as a major contribution to the overall process. The women who programmed ENIAC were considered to be mere operators, rather than given their due as a key component of the group of people that made the project a success. ...
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