New entry in our blog: the first one of the Top Secret Rosies series. This time it is dedicated to six women who were responsible for the programming of ENIAC and for changing the course of humanity with their job. Everything began in 1942, in the middle of World War II when women were underestimated. At the end, their alliance with computers would end up bearing fruit to make way for the era of modern computing.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, USA started recruiting women who knew mathematics. They ended up programming the second digital computer: ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer). Remember that the first digital computer arose in Europe thanks to the works of Konrad Zuse and his series of Zx computers.
ENIAC was a computer with 17,468 vacuum tubes (whose average life was about 3000 hours and every 10 min should be replaced one), 7200 glass diodes, 1500 switches, 10,000 capacitors, 70,000 resistors and 5 million solders. All this electronic mass dissipated a temperature of 50 degrees C. It consumed 160 kw and it had a total weight of 27 tons distributed by 167 square meters. All this was capable of processing 5,000 sums and 300 multiplications per second. Calculation figures were used for calculating the trajectories of projectiles in the war, for calculating the hydrogen bomb and other industrial and military calculations of that period …
The programmers made cable connections in about 6000 connection terminals that the machine had for programming. Thanks to this work and dedication they appeared in some programming books. They were included in Women In Technology International Hall of Fame in 1997, as well as being protagonists of some documentary films like The top secret rosies. But despite this, they have not been recognized as they deserve to be the first programmers in history, along Ada Lovelace.
But who were they? Let’s name these pioneers:
1. Betty Snyder Holberton: Betty was really a qualified journalist. She was self-taught in the field of mathematics and physics. Her great willingness and intelligence led her to become one of the ENIAC programmers. Later, she also contributed to the conception of the programming language COBOL and Fortran together with Grace Murray Hopper. Among her contributions, we can also highlight the development of the first generative programming system for UNIVAC and the first statistical analysis package used for the US census.
2. Jean Jennings Bartik: She came from a peasant family in Missouri. Jean struggled to get out of the hard life dedicated to agriculture and she gained access to higher education thanks to a $ 400 loan she asked her aunt. She studied mathematics and graduate from Philadelphia where she joined Doris, Shirley and Marlyn, as well as getting a PhD in science. Thanks to this, she became one of the first programmers of ENIAC. After the trajectory with ENIAC, Marlyn continued working in other machines such as BINAC and UNIVAC I. For all this she was honored with the Computer History Museum award in 2008, together with Linus Torvalds (creator of Linux) and Robert Metcalfe (co-inventor of Ethernet ).
3. Kathleen McNulty Mauchly: she was of Irish origin. She studied mathematics and business but she acquired programming skills in a completely self-taught way.
4. Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer: she got a degree from Temple University and then she ended up working in commercial machines. But a friend told her in the summer of ’42 that a professor from the University of Pennsylvania was interviewing women to do weather calculations. She attended the interview to finish under the direction of Dr. John W. Muchly (one of the creators of the ENIAC together John Presper Eckert) and his wife Maria.
5. Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum: she was graduated in mathematics from Hunter College and recruited by the Moore School of Engineering to perform ballistic trajectory calculations as part of the women they called “computers” for their work. The army decided to finance the ENIAC project and she was one of the members of the spatial area of the project together with Marlyn Meltzer. Despite her work within the principles of computing Ruth did not receive too much credit as the rest of her classmates. Despite this she was eventually included in the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame along with the other 5, although in 1997 she had already passed away, her husband accepted the award in her name…
6. Frances Bilas Spence: she was daughter of a Philadelphia engineer and a teacher. Frances studied mathematics at Temple University where she got a Chestnut Hill College scholarship. There she met Kathleen with whom she shared her destiny later, working in the ENIAC. A short time later she resigned her position to start a family with Homer Spence. They had three children.
* Note: there are some interesting documentaries like “The Computers” dedicated to these women. They were the first of a series of three completed with “The Coders” and “The Future Maker”.
In the next installment of Top Secret Rosies we will continue with the twins Doris and Shirley…