ENIAC: World’s First Electronic Computer Programmed by 6 Women

ENIAC: World’s First Electronic Computer Programmed by 6 Women

“As my mother used to say ‘If we don’t know our history, we are doomed to repeat it,’” said Kleiman. “And we don’t know our history. We don’t know about these women pioneers. And it might make a difference if we do.”

More than 70 years ago, six brilliant mathematicians came to Philadelphia to take part in a secret U.S. Army project designed to help the Allies win World War II. These young pioneers of the computing age learned to program using only logical diagrams and their considerable talents. One must note that there was no programming languages or tools to help them. 

The result of their efforts was ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer), the first all-electronic programmable computer, capable of running a ballistics trajectory—a differential calculus equation—in seconds. The Army unveiled ENIAC to the public in 1946, but the six mathematicians who poured their brainpower and creativity into the project were never recognized for their work.

They were the first modern-day programmers, but they were also women and expected to stay in the background.

It was Arthur Burks, a mathematician and senior engineer on the ENIAC team who was given the duty to show off the machine’s capabilities to the public. He first had the computer add 5,000 numbers together, a task is completed in 1 second. Then he demonstrated that the machine could compute a bomb trajectory in less time than a shell would take to fly from gun to target.

What people didn’t know, or what was concealed during the demonstration, was that behind the computer’s apparent intelligence was the arduous and ground-breaking programming work of a team of six women, who themselves had previously worked as “computers.” 

Kathleen Mauchly Antonelli, Frances Bilas Spence, Frances “Betty” Snyder Holberton, Jean Jennings Bartik, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum: 6 brilliant minds behind ENIAC.

Marlyn Wescoff [left] and Ruth Lichterman were two of the female programmers of ENIAC

It was until the mid-1980s that the original programmers of the ENIAC were finally recognized for their efforts thanks to Kathy Kleiman.

Kathy was a young computer programmer who came across an old picture of the ENIAC while working on a college project. Kleiman inquired about the women in the picture. A representative at the Computer History Museum told her they were “refrigerator ladies”–models who were only in the photo to make the product look good.

Their work had been so thoroughly swept under the rug that even a group dedicated to furthering the status of women in the tech industry had no knowledge of the work ENIAC programmers had accomplished five decades earlier.

In her own research, Kleiman discovered who these women were. Her research evolved into meeting and interviewing the women and founding the ENIAC Programmers Project.

She devoted 20 years of her life to telling the story of the ENIAC programmers and to ensure they receive credit for their pivotal role in computing history. She also spearheaded the award-winning film The Computers, that premiered at the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival. The film explains the daunting tasks the ENIAC team faced and delves into the backgrounds of the women of ENIAC.

Kathy Kleiman

Kleinman believes telling the story of the ENIAC women and influential female computer scientists can change stereotyped beliefs about professional occupations, inspire more girls to pursue IT careers, and ultimately lead to an IT community that is more inclusive and successful at developing products that serve a diverse population.

So we ask again did you know ENIAC, the world’s first electronic digital computer, was programmed by six incredibly talented women: Kathleen Mauchly Antonelli, Frances Bilas Spence, Frances “Betty” Snyder Holberton, Jean Jennings Bartik, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum?

Well, now you do.

Let the young minds get inspired with their glorious past as they step into the world of science and technology.


Featured image: Betty Jean Jennings [left] and Frances Bilas operating ENIAC’s main control panel. Photo credit: U.S. Army/Bettmann/Getty Images

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