“From our Friends over at DigitalTrends”
The construction of ENIAC in the 1940s marked a major milestone in computing’s early history. You may well have been told about ENIAC Day (February 15, in case you missed it this year), and the computer’s involvement with research into the hydrogen bomb. However, you probably haven’t heard much about the team of programmers who made its day-to-day operation possible.
A team of six women were responsible for programming ENIAC, but their contribution to its success was largely glossed over in the years that followed. Their story raises an uncomfortable question — how can we encourage more women to enter fields such as programming if some of the most groundbreaking work carried out by women in the industry is to be forgotten?
The Birth of Programming
The Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer, or ENIAC, was the world’s first electronic digital computer, a landmark accomplishment on our journey towards the technological era we’re living in at present. Financed by the United States Army, it would prove to be an invaluable tool in calculating artillery firing tables and early research into the hydrogen bomb.
Setting up a single calculation could take days, and a program could take weeks.
The creation of ENIAC is a remarkable story in its own right, but there’s an extra facet hidden just beneath its surface. While the design of the computer is credited to John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert of the University of Pennsylvania, the programming of the system fell to a remarkable group of women; Fran Bilas, Betty Jennings, Ruth Lichterman, Kay McNulty, Betty Snyder and Marlyn Wescoff.
Despite the trailblazing work those six women did, they’re likely not names that you’re familiar with. Back then, computers were programmed through a physical system of adjusting switches and cables manually — ‘debugging’ a program meant climbing inside the ENIAC in search of faulty connections. A new program had to first be sketched out on paper, then implemented with extreme precision. Setting up a single calculation could take days, and a full program could take weeks.