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WoW Blog (Woman of the Week)

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The ENIAC Programmers, 1946

Posted November 06, 2007 12:02 AM by t-rex

During World War II, over 80 women worked at the University of Pennsylvania calculating ballistics trajectories by hand. The Army called these women "Computers". In 1945, six of these computers were selected to be the first programmers of an all-electronic digital computer. These six women were Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Jean Jennings Bartik, Frances Snyder Holberton, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Frances Bilas Spence, and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum.

The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) was a massive computer that could add 5,000 numbers and do fourteen 10-digit multiplications in a second. This was double the speed of the fastest mechanical relay computers of that day. Since ENIAC was classified, the programmers were not allowed access to the machine until they received security clearance. The programmers had no manuals to refer to or courses in programming. They had to physically route data by using the 3000 switches and dozens of cables to program pulses through the machine. After the ENIAC computer was unveiled to the public, it was turned into a stored program computer. The first ENIAC programmers had to manually wire the computer each time a particular program was executed.

The public and press were amazed by the ENIAC. The machine became legendary and its engineers – all men – became famous. The ENIAC programmers were never introduced or credited during the 1940s. Each of these pioneering women contributed greatly to the programming of the ENIAC computer. Many of them would go on to develop tools for software engineers and teach future programmers.

Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, or Kay Antonelli, moved to Aberdeen with the ENIAC after the war. She married one of the computers co-inventors, John Mauchly, and they had five children together. Kay worked on software for the BINAC and UNIVAC I, computers which were designed by her husband. Kay authored papers and would frequently speak with Jean Bartik about the ENIAC programmers. In 1997 she was inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame along with the other original programmers.

Jean Jennings Bartik, born Betty Jean Jennings, was a mathematics major at the Northwest Missouri State Teachers College. Bartik would go on to be part of the group that converted ENIAC to a stored computer. Jean Bartik also worked on programming the BINAC and UNIVAC I computers.

Born Frances Snyder Holberton, Betty Holberton was the inventor of the mnemonic instruction set for the BINAC. Grace Hopper called this the basis for all subsequent programming languages. Betty also helped develop the early standards for COBOL and FORTRAN. In addition to induction into the WITI Hall of Fame with the other programmers, Betty Holberton received the Augusta Ada Lovelace Award for computer programmers.

Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer was a graduate of Temple University and was hired by the Moore School of Engineering because she knew how to operate an adding machine. She resigned from the ENIAC team in 1947 before it was moved to Aberdeen.

Frances Bilas Spence graduated from Chestnut Hill College with a major in mathematics and a minor in physics. She operated the Differential Analyzer and along with Kay, led the teams of women who calculated the ballistics equations. She moved to Aberdeen with the ENIAC and married an army engineer. Frances later resigned from the project and raised a family.

Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum had a B.Sc. in mathematics from Hunter College. Ruth followed the ENIAC to Aberdeen where she taught the next generation of programmers the special functions of the computing tool.

The original six ENIAC programmers will be honored by a documentary, Invisible Computers: The Untold Story of the ENIAC Programmers. Google's Diversity Program has supported a documentary fundraiser on Thursday, November 8, 2007 in Mountain View, CA.



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Re: The ENIAC Programmers, 1946

11/06/2007 3:41 PM

Thanks for writing this, the story is fascinating!

I'm hoping to catch the documentary at some point.

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Re: The ENIAC Programmers, 1946

11/06/2007 4:32 PM

Great story, t-rex! Thanks for educating us about these "computers". I'm glad that these six women are finally getting the credit that they deserve.


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Re: The ENIAC Programmers, 1946

11/06/2007 4:59 PM

Wow! I never knew. Guess you really can learn something new every day.

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Re: The ENIAC Programmers, 1946

11/07/2007 10:17 AM

Because of articles like this, I love this website!

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Re: The ENIAC Programmers, 1946

11/07/2007 11:27 AM

Having actually worked for Univac the Company from 1973 till 1980, you brought back some interesting memories for me as Univac made sure that everyone knew their company history.

The first computer I worked on in 1974 for Uivac was basically the commercial version of the on board Computer of the Apollo Moonshots. It had a plated wire memory that worked like a core memory, but without the fearsome current requirements and subsequent heating effects....the on board version used just 1 watt of power.....and I believe either had 32k or 64 k of memory.....probably 32k on could switch it off and back on and the program was still held in memory! Very useful when it had problems....

Those were the days.....

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Re: The ENIAC Programmers, 1946

11/07/2007 11:48 AM

"During World War II," The beginning of the end for manual computations.

Prior to WWII the manual comptometer was the calculator of choice for businesses and banks. A bank or business required rooms full of young ladies busily keying in data for addition and/or subtraction. With a keyboard 10 or 11 rows wide and 10 rows high it showed results in a register of 11 or 12 digits. Results were hand copied to the work sheet(s). These young ladies were the mainstay of commerce of the time.

The want ads of those day and during WWII sought trained comptometer operators and offered training classes for prospective operators.

With the advent of the punch card machines the use of comptometers began to fade into historyl

Felt & Tarrant Comptometer

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