The "T" in STEM: The ENIAC Women. The World's First Computers
In the 1940s, the term "computers" literally referred to women who were employed to carry out and optimise Mathematical work. There were 23 women involved in the in the first phase of the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) project from 1942-1955. Another 200 women would work on the project over time. The original six includes: Kathleen McNulty, Frances Bilas, Betty Jean Jennings, Elizabeth "Betty" Holberton (nee Snyder), Ruth Lichterman, and Marlyn Wescoff. The women lived and worked together on one of the greatest pieces of technology the world had seen.
The ENIAC was the first electronic digital computer to be designed and successfully used. It was almost 46 metres wide with hundred of wires, 3,000 switches and "20 banks of flashing lights." Researcher David Alan Grier describes it as "a collection of electronic adding machines and other arithmetic units, which were originally controlled by a web of large electrical cables"
). The women taught themselves to use and program ENIAC on their own. It was first used for the Manhattan Project in 1945 and in the late 1940s it became the first operating stored-program computer.From Math to Computer Science
A couple of the original six women report being initially attracted to work on the project after seeing an ad recruiting Mathematics majors to work for the Army at the University of Pennsylvania. They wanted to support the War efforts. All these women were all especially bright and so some of them remember being initially disappointed to be appointed to the ENIAC project. Their recollections are that the work involved long hours, much organisational chaos and intense scientific creativity.
The women faced scepticism from their research leaders that they were up to the challenge. Specifically, they were asked to give firm commitments not to leave the project to start families before they could sign their contracts.
In the design and testing phases they worked with reams of paper carrying out annotations by hand. They also worked with various desk calculators that would regularly break down due to the intensity of their work.When Computers Were Women
In her seminal paper, Jennifer Light, Professor of Communication Studies, History, and Sociology, argues that history has obscured the prolific and central work of women in developing computers (http://goo.gl/KO3m8F
). She shows that the ENIAC women stepped up to work during the War, as did many other women at the time, but the general public was ambivalent about women's efforts. The ENIAC women's contribution was eventually erased while the focus fell to the technology itself and the male research leads, J. Presper Eckerd and John Mauchly.
While the public imagination may have a different idea, the women did not simply push buttons; they were innovators of the technology.
Betty Holberton was seen as the strongest of the original six, having made a significant contribution to the monitoring and standardisation of the Fortran language (one of the earliest programming languages). Pioneer computer scientist Grace Hopper famously said Holberton was the best computer programmer she had ever known. In the first six months of 1952, Holberton “devised the first sort-merge generator for UNIVAC I [UniVersal Automatic Computer I], from which Grace Murray Hopper claimed to have derived the first ideas about compilation.”
While today, the idea of the computer programmer is highly gendered and narrow (the "geeky White guy"), it's worth remembering on International Women's Day that programming literally started as women's work. It was women who optimised the automation of computational processing, elevating the possibilities of work that was once done manually (http://goo.gl/O9XEww
). Light writes:The omission of women from the history of computer science perpetuates misconceptions of women as uninterested or incapable in the field...the job of programmer, perceived in recent years as masculine work, originated as feminised clerical labour... While celebrating women's presence, wartime writing minimised the complexities of their actual work. While describing the difficulty of their tasks, it classified their occupations as subprofessional. While showcasing them in formerly male occupations, it celebrated their work for its femininity. Despite the complexities - and often pathbreaking aspects -- of the work women performed, they rarely received credit for innovation or invention. Technological Innovators
Here are a couple of the ENIAC women's oral recollections:Home McAllister (Reitwiesner)Some of my happiest times were trouble-shooting either the program or the ENIAC-or perhaps both at the same time. I enjoyed the test runs we wrote out on paper to test all branches of all parts of a flow chart and helping to find out why they didn’t go to the branches where we expected them to go. With respect to ENIAC operation, we were often able to point out to a technician which individual vacuum tube needed to be changed. Each of us had a desk calculator-a Monroe, a Marchant, or a Frieden-to assist in the preparation of test runs.In spring 1950, the Institute for Advanced Study was preparing to put the first weather forecasting problem on ENIAC... The joke at the time was that ENIAC could make a 24-hour weather forecast in 25 hours. Weather forecasting, some 45 years later, continues to utilize the fastest computers available. In 1950, the ENIAC was the fastest available.Betty Holberton
(quoted in brief in the image below)The day ENIAC was introduced to the world was one of the most exciting days of my life. The demonstration was fabulous. ENIAC calculated the trajectory faster than it took the bullet to travel. We handed out copies of the calculations as they were run. ENIAC was 1,000 times faster than any machine that existed prior to that time. With its flashing lights, it also was an impressive machine illustrating graphically how fast it was actually computing. Betty Jean Jennings (Bartik)Occasionally, the six of us programmers all got together to discuss how we thought the machine worked. If this sounds haphazard, it was. The biggest advantage of learning the ENIAC from the diagrams was that we began to understand what it could and what it could not do. As a result we could diagnose troubles almost down to the individual vacuum tube. Since we knew both the application and the machine, we learned to diagnose troubles as well as, if not better than, the engineer. Be sure to keep sharing your posts about your favourite women in STEM using #stemwomen
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"The Women of ENIAC," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing:
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