The Women of ENIAC
October 23, 2008 2:22 PM   Subscribe

It's hardly the case today (unless you live in Iran), but once upon a time, all computer programmers were female. While the (male) engineers who built ENIAC, the world's first modern computer, became famous and lauded, the six women who actually programmed ENIAC have been largely overlooked. Now a team of researchers and programmers is trying to raise money to tell the story of these pioneering women in a new documentary, before it's too late.

So, here's to the women of ENIAC:

Frances Elizabeth "Betty" Snyder Holberton
Betty Jean Jennings Bartik
Kathleen "Kay" McNulty Mauchly Antonelli
Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer
Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum
Frances "Fran" Bilas Spence

*raises a glass cup of coffee*
posted by Asparagirl (25 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
Haven't read all the links yet but in what way did they "program" ENIAC? It looks like they did the manual labor of connecting cables according to a program created by someone else.
posted by Riemann at 2:34 PM on October 23, 2008

Edit: Nevermind. Other article has a better description of what they did. They did the programming as well as cable hookups.
posted by Riemann at 2:38 PM on October 23, 2008

You should probably read the links.

Because if you did, you'd notice that not only did they write the programs, they did it without any programming courses, without even any manuals on how ENIAC worked, and basically had to reverse engineer the computer by themselves:

"Because the ENIAC project was classified, the programmers were denied access to the machine they were supposed to tame into usefulness until they received their security clearances. As the first programmers, they had no programming manuals or courses, only the logical diagrams to help them figure out how to make the ENIAC work.

They had none of the programming tools of today. Instead, the programmers had to physically program the ballistics program by using the 3000 switches and dozens of cables and digit trays to physically route the data and program pulses through the machine."

And that ballistics program? Was one that they had been doing as part of a group of "computers" (female programmers) at UPenn for the Army for several years, calculating ballistics trajectories using complex differential equations, by hand.
posted by Asparagirl at 2:44 PM on October 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

From the "programmed ENIAC" link:
With ENIAC's 40 panels still under construction, and its 18,000 vacuum tube technology uncertain, the engineers had no time for programming manuals or classes. Bartik and the other women taught themselves ENIAC's operation from its logical and electrical block diagrams, and then figured out how to program it. They created their own flow charts, programming sheets, wrote the program and placed it on the ENIAC using a challenging physical interface, which had hundreds of wires and 3,000 switches. It was an unforgettable, wonderful experience.
It must have been an incredible experience to be able to walk inside the machine itself. "Computer" as a job title was pretty interesting, too - I wonder when it transitioned over to the name of the machine?
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:45 PM on October 23, 2008

My grandmother busted out some old printouts of the programs she wrote for the local sawmill back in the day as their secretary. She also had a fondness for algebra and other maths. My grandfather was out doing man work like logging and the like. The total paradigm shift hasn't escaped my attention, and it's nice that these women are getting their cudos. In some small way it validates my grandmother.
posted by The Power Nap at 2:46 PM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

This is great. Thank you.
posted by digaman at 2:46 PM on October 23, 2008

This is an excellent post, and an excellent cause. Thanks for posting.
posted by spiderskull at 2:51 PM on October 23, 2008

I can't believe this post didn't include the first computer programmer, ADA namesake, and Lord Byron daughter Ada Lovelace.
posted by mullingitover at 2:58 PM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Multi-processor computing, 1924.

Women had a vital role in science in the early and mid 20th century (see also Henrietta Leavitt), frequently hired on to do the inglorious labor necessary so that the leaders of research projects could get on with their high-profile work. What's increasingly coming to light these days is how much these women contributed through their intelligence and insight on top of their persistence through the drudge work.

Thanks for the links, Asparagirl.
posted by ardgedee at 2:59 PM on October 23, 2008

:: Raises cup of Tea, Earl Gray, Hot ::

Women ruled the realm of computing during it's nascent years, and built a foundation that we all stand upon today.

Hail to these intelligent, and dynamic mothers of the digital age!

Hail to Grace Murray Hooper, mother of the Compiler; of the concept of High Level Languages, and of COBOL and FORTRAN.

Praise be to the Mainframe, processor of transactions, keeper of data.

Aye, my proudest days and nights were as a 21st Century mainframer. God how I miss the MCP.

So say we all.

::::: END OF LINE :::::
posted by PROD_TPSL at 3:02 PM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

I should point out that these women are not mere symbolic/figurehead heroes of mine, but rather, I indirectly owe them my career. My grandfather was a student at Penn in the late 1940's/early 1950's, and although he was at the business school and not the engineering school, he was fascinated by ENIAC and used to volunteer there. He told me he and the other volunteers used to have to run up and down the corridors to replace things (vacuum tubes?) that had burnt out. He later got into Ham Radio and the personal computing revolution, bought my family our first IBM PC back in the early DOS days, and got me a BBS account (as I requested) for one of my early birthday presents. I took to it like a duck to water, and eventually went into computing for a living as a web development dork.*

Thank you, under-recognized women of ENIAC!

* I wound up Lead Programmer for what is now the #1 entertainment website in the world, and then (at a different job) served as Senior Web Producer (chief coder/dba/geek) for websites that have gotten three Emmy nominations in the past two years. My only fellow co-developer/programmer at that last job was female, too.
posted by Asparagirl at 3:12 PM on October 23, 2008 [3 favorites]

When I was in high school in the early 1980's there wasn't any classes for 'computer science'. There were, however, a large group of us geeks looking for any class that would allow us to get our hands on computers. Oddly, the only course available was called 'data processing and computing' and was made up of 90% female students training for their careers as secretaries, clerks, typists and stenographers.

I remember getting a packet with all kinds of flow chart stencils. I remember a big thick book. And, I remember one lone computer on the teachers desk. Yeah, we never actually used it or even saw the screen. The teacher did program it to play '3 blind mice' on our last day.

Point is, even in the 1980's most people considered computers 'women's work'.
posted by UseyurBrain at 3:28 PM on October 23, 2008

Why is computer science so overwhelmingly male?
posted by fake at 4:27 PM on October 23, 2008

My mother was amongst the first female programmers in Silicon Valley, starting her career programming supercomputers back in the '50s with IBM. She later worked for Control Data Corporation in the '60s, where she eventually managed a team of programmers. Both companies, along with a lot of high-tech military research in the area, helped create the environment that led to the Silicon Valley becoming what it is today.

My first experiences with computers was when my mother took me to her work, some around '72. I saw the big supercomputers, and played games like Hammurabi on a teletype, and Lunar Lander, one of the first games programmed by CDC -- or anyone else -- to play on a real monitor!

On the holidays, she would sometimes find herself working from home using a teletype connected to an acoustic coupler modem. 150 bauds, no problem!
posted by markkraft at 4:32 PM on October 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

I just happened to finish writing a chapter on Grace Hopper and Ada Lovelace -- so this is awesome timing. Thanks for this post! (Also, slightly related, my recent post about the female "computers" who worked in Harvard's astronomy lab.)
posted by mothershock at 6:52 PM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

I had no idea. Thanks, Asparagirl!
posted by Solon and Thanks at 7:37 PM on October 23, 2008

My last hope has been crushed. Long gone are the illusions that a man is noble or strong. This last refuge, the dark art of creating artificial intelligence, that a man did something...anything...before or better than a woman, has been annihilated. God help us all.

posted by sluglicker at 9:21 PM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

With more favorites than comments (28+mine to 17+this one), I can only hope everyone is enjoying the nice FPP. When reading up on COBOL today, I know I was pleased as punch to find out the the unparalleled Grace Hopper was one of the designers. Here's the programming pioneers!
posted by now i'm piste at 1:48 AM on October 24, 2008

Dang, I thought this was one of those "Women of..." pin-up calendars. *drums fingers on desk, looking at grainy back-and-white pictures, thinking* Then again, maybe not the best idea.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:26 AM on October 24, 2008

@wenestvedt: Joanna, fire!
posted by now i'm piste at 8:38 AM on October 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

No one understands what it's like being a Fembot living in a Manbot's Manputer world.
posted by AdamFlybot at 10:24 AM on October 24, 2008

Dang, I thought this was one of those "Women of..." pin-up calendars. *drums fingers on desk, looking at grainy back-and-white pictures, thinking* Then again, maybe not the best idea.

What? They're women so they should be in a pin-up calendar? What exactly do you mean by this? It wasn't enough that they are intellectually and academically accomplished, that fulfilling your fantasy overrides everything?

And then you follow that up with the idea that they're not up to your physical standards to warrant a calendar on second thought. Classy.

This is the sort of disheartening dialog I see in engineering departments, and it's to the point where I'm tired of reaching these infuriating dead-ends filled with "oh it's just good fun" bullshit. It's to the point where I'm just sorry you feel this way about women, and that your perceptions keep you from seeing them as accomplished and capable human beings rather than objects of your amusement.
posted by spiderskull at 1:58 PM on October 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Why is computer science so overwhelmingly male?

I'd argue the most important factor today is video games. A massive number of students enrolled in CS are motivated by games. I recall reading a story about a whiteboard Wall at Google with the question "What first interested you in computers?" and the first respondant wrote down a video game. Over the course of a day the wall filled with the names of video games. I'd wager half the entering class of CS is angling to write a video game after graduation. In such an environment, the fact that games became heavily marketed to boys (who didn't own a GameBoy?) probably slanted enrollment far and away from girls.

And I don't mean admissions. American girls (women?) don't enroll in CS. Carnegie Mellon declared they were super awesome and great by reaching gender parity by admitting girls before boys. My alma mater's been doing the same thing, but there simply aren't enough girls applying.

But I've seen some papers that suggest moving CS into engineering was the catalyst and why you have few women faculty. This supports a theory more than one engineering friend of mine had, that women hate math. I'd agree, with the caveat that American girls don't like math. International students don't have any particular aversion to it. It seems a bit strange to me; my high school Calculus class was roughly equal, but Honors English had always been overwhelmingly girls. And while nobody talks about the under enrollment of boys in English, I can't say I mind or see it a problem for society.
posted by pwnguin at 3:30 PM on October 24, 2008

...once upon a time, all computer programmers were female.
I would have said ...once upon a time, most computers were female.
posted by MtDewd at 12:51 PM on October 25, 2008

I would have said ...once upon a time, most computers were female.

posted by Sys Rq at 10:45 AM on October 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

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