Women programmers of ENIAC. Pioneers of software

Women programmers of ENIAC – Pioneers of software

Researching for the post on the ENIAC, I came across a small paragraph mentioning the women programmers who had programmed the ENIAC,  but were totally ignored and forgotten to the extent that they were not mentioned in any of the press releases, they were not invited even for the 50th anniversary of the commissioning of the ENIAC(which happened in the socially aware times of 1996!). There was a story lurking under the  surface. I did not expect too much of content to be available on the net. So, I wanted to do a short piece on them. Boy, was I wrong! There were oodles and oodles of content on the net about the ENIAC programmers. I was overwhelmed by the quality and the quantity of the content. I have tried my best to curate as much content as possible.

“For many years in the computing industry, the hardware was it, the software was considered an auxiliary thing.”

– Jean Bartik

This quote from the leader of the group of 6 women who programmed the ENIAC, sounds counter-intuitive in today’s software dominated world, where the hardware has been reduced to commodity status.

According to the article in abcnews.com,

““At 83, Betty Jean Jennings Bartik — a devoted bridge player and grandmother of five — had a secret past that was invisible to many who knew her.

Her grandson Alex knew her story. He stormed out of school one day when his teacher refused to believe his gray-haired granny was a computer pioneer who had calculated firing tables and ballistic trajectories during World War II.

The boy’s parents had to explain to the teacher that Bartik and five other women had, indeed, legally hacked the world’s first programmable computer, converting it into a stored machine and eventually helping to usher in the digital age.

“She was dumbfounded,” said Bartik.

So, too, were the historians, who for a half century never acknowledged the wartime contributions of the six women who programmed the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) and made programming easier and more accessible to those who followed.”

The story of the 6 women programmers is exhilarating and sad at the same time. As World War II was raging around the globe, there was a need to develop quicker ways to calculate artillery firing tables for the United States Army’s Ballistic Research Laboratory. This work was done predominantly by women ‘computers’(so called because they computed the numbers by hand, for various requirements. Computer as a device did not exist then). The ENIAC was built with the express purpose of replacing these ‘computers’ and calculate differential equations in seconds, what took the human computers days to calculate.”

Commissioning of the ENIAC

Credit: US Army

 According to the article in phillyvoice.com,

 ““These women were hired pretty much to set this machine up, but it turns out that no one knew how to program. There were no ‘programmers’ at that time, and the only thing that existed for this machine were the schematics,” said Mitch Marcus, the RCA Professor of Artificial Intelligence in the Department of Computer and Information Science at the University of Pennsylvania. “These six women found out what it took to run this computer — and they really did incredible things.”

“So ENIAC, instead of doing five additions a second [like its predecessors], each of its 20 accumulators could do 20,000 additions a second,” said Marcus, who has pursued ENIAC as a side interest for more than two decades. “When it was finished, it could actually compute the trajectory of an artillery shell faster than the artillery shell could travel.”

Not only was ENIAC incredibly powerful in terms of speed, but unlike earlier machines, it wasn’t built for a specific purpose and could tackle a multitude of different problems. Mauchly’s original proposal was to use it for weather forecasting, but the U.S. Army later funded the project for the purpose of automating the calculation of artillery firing tables. Each line of these tables typically took a single person about 40 hours to complete.”

Selection of 6 ‘computers’ to program the ENIAC

I came across this article on Fortune magazine’s website. It contained excerpts of the book “The Innovators” by Walter Isaacson. The excerpts are very interesting and so I have curated some of it in this post. For those of you who want the real McCoy, please click on the book title and buy it.

“The field of computer programming was so new, it seems Herman Goldstine did not know what to ask the girls in the interview. Here is a sample of what he asked and how Jean Jennings was picked for the job.

“When she got to the meeting, Herman Goldstine, Adele’s husband, asked her what she knew about electricity. “I said that I had had a course in physics and knew that E equalled IR,” she recalled, referring to Ohm’s law. “No, no,” Goldstine replied, “I don’t care about that, but are you afraid of it?” The job involved plugging in wires and throwing a lot of switches, he explained. She said that she wasn’t afraid. While she was being interviewed, Adele Goldstine came in, looked at her, and nodded. Jennings was selected.””

Their experiences

Credit: US Army

According to the excerpts from “The Innovators” by Walter Isaacson in the Fortune website,

 “Ever since the days of Charles Babbage, who conceived of a giant mechanical calculator called the Analytical Engine in the 1830s, the engineering of computer hardware has been dominated by men. The pioneers of software, however, were often women, beginning with Babbage’s friend and muse Ada, Countess of Lovelace. Daughter of the Romantic poet Lord Byron and a mother who loved math, Ada combined both fields into what she called “poetical science.”

“…A century later, when the first electronic computers were being invented, the men were still focusing on the hardware, and many women followed in Ada’s footsteps. One was Lt. Grace Hopper, who helped program the Harvard Mark I computer in the early 1940s. Less heralded by history was a group of six women who worked in wartime secrecy at the University of Pennsylvania, where John Mauchly and Presper Eckert led a team that was building ENIAC, the world’s first programmable, all-electronic, general-purpose computer. Here is an excerpt from Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators telling their story:

The tale of Jean Jennings is illustrative of the early women computer programmers. She was born on a farm on the outskirts of Alanthus Grove, Mo. (pop. 104), into a family that had almost no money and deeply valued education. Her father taught in a one-room schoolhouse, where Jean became the star pitcher and lone girl on the softball team. Her mother, though she had dropped out of school in eighth grade, helped tutor algebra and geometry. Jean was the sixth of seven children, all of whom went to college. She attended Northwest Missouri State Teachers College in Maryville, where the tuition was $76 per year. She started out majoring in journalism, but she hated her adviser so switched to math, which she loved.

When she finished in January 1945, her calculus teacher showed her a flier soliciting women mathematicians to work at the University of Pennsylvania, where women were working as “computers”—humans who performed routinized math tasks—mainly calculating artillery trajectory tables for the Army.

Jennings, who had never been out of Missouri, applied. When she received a telegram of acceptance, she boarded the midnight Wabash train heading east and arrived at Penn 40 hours later. “Needless to say, they were shocked that I had gotten there so quickly,” she recalled.

In addition to Jean Jennings (later Bartik), the others were Marlyn Wescoff (later Meltzer), Ruth Lichterman (later Teitelbaum), Betty Snyder (later Holberton), Frances Bilas (later Spence), and Kay McNulty (who later married John Mauchly).

After six weeks of training, the women consigned their boyfriends to memory archives and returned to Penn, where they were given poster-size diagrams and charts describing ENIAC. “Somebody gave us a whole stack of blueprints, and these were the wiring diagrams for all the panels, and they said, ‘Here, figure out how the machine works and then figure out how to program it,’” explained McNulty. That required analyzing the differential equations and then determining how to patch the cables to connect to the correct electronic circuits. “The biggest advantage of learning the ENIAC from the diagrams was that we began to understand what it could and could not do,” said Jennings. “As a result we could diagnose troubles almost down to the individual vacuum tube.” She and Snyder devised a system to figure out which of the 18,000 vacuum tubes had burned out. “Since we knew both the application and the machine, we learned to diagnose troubles as well as, if not better than, the engineers. I tell you, those engineers loved it. They could leave the debugging to us.””

According to the article, Meet the ‘Refrigerator Ladies’ Who Programmed the ENIAC,

““There was no language, no operating system, no anything,” Kleiman says. “The women had to figure out what the computer was, how to interface with it, and then break down a complicated mathematical problem into very small steps that the ENIAC could then perform.” They physically hand-wired the machine, an arduous task using switches, cables, and digit trays to route data and program pulses.

“The ENIAC was a son of a bitch to program,” Jean Jennings has said.”

The unveiling of the ENIAC and the work done by the ‘computers’

 According to the excerpts from “The Innovators” by Walter Isaacson in the Fortune website,

 ““Because it was being used for atom bomb calculations and other classified tasks, ENIAC was kept secret until February 1946, when the Army and Penn scheduled a gala unveiling for the public and the press. Herman Goldstine decided that the centrepiece of the ENIAC presentation would be a demonstration of a missile trajectory calculation. So two weeks in advance, he invited Jean Jennings and Betty Snyder to his apartment and, as Adele served tea, asked them if they could program ENIAC to do this in time. “We sure could,” Jennings pledged. She was excited. It would allow them to get their hands directly on the machine, which was rare. They set to work plugging memory buses into the correct units and setting up program trays.

The night before the demonstration was Valentine’s Day, but despite their normally active social lives, Snyder and Jennings did not celebrate. “Instead, we were holed up with that wonderful machine, the ENIAC, busily making the last corrections and checks on the program,” Jennings recounted. There was one stubborn glitch they couldn’t figure out: The program did a wonderful job spewing out data on the trajectory of artillery shells, but it just didn’t know when to stop. Even after the shell would have hit the ground, the program kept calculating its trajectory, “like a hypothetical shell burrowing through the ground at the same rate it had traveled through the air,” as Jennings described it. “Unless we solved that problem, we knew the demonstration would be a dud, and the ENIAC’s inventors and engineers would be embarrassed.”

Jennings and Snyder worked late into the evening before the press briefing trying to fix it, but they couldn’t. They finally gave up at midnight, when Snyder needed to catch the last train to her suburban apartment. But after she went to bed, Snyder figured it out: “I woke up in the middle of the night thinking what that error was…I came in, made a special trip on the early train that morning to look at a certain wire.” The problem was that there was a setting at the end of a “do loop” that was one digit off. She flipped the requisite switch and the glitch was fixed. “Betty could do more logical reasoning while she was asleep than most people can do awake,” Jennings later marveled. “While she slept, her subconscious untangled the knot that her conscious mind had been unable to.”

The unveiling of ENIAC made the front page of the New York Times under the headline ELECTRONIC COMPUTER FLASHES ANSWERS, MAY SPEED ENGINEERING. The story began, “One of the war’s top secrets, an amazing machine which applies electronic speeds for the first time to mathematical tasks hitherto too difficult and cumbersome for solution, was announced here tonight by the War Department.” The report continued inside the Times for a full page, with pictures of Mauchly, Eckert, and the room-size ENIAC. Mauchly proclaimed that the machine would lead to better weather predictions (his original passion), airplane design, and “projectiles operating at supersonic speeds.”

Of course, there was no mention, even in the passing, to the women programmers who had made the demonstration possible.”

The women were not invited to the dinner following the ENIAC unveiling.

“Jennings had another complaint that was more personal: “Betty and I were ignored and forgotten following the demonstration. We felt as if we had been playing parts in a fascinating movie that suddenly took a bad turn, in which we had worked like dogs for two weeks to produce something really spectacular and then were written out of the script.” That night there was a candlelit dinner at Penn’s venerable Houston Hall. It was filled with scientific luminaries, military brass, and most of the men who had worked on ENIAC. But Jean Jennings and Betty Snyder were not there, nor were any of the other women programmers. “Betty and I weren’t invited,” Jennings said, “so we were sort of horrified.” While the men and various dignitaries celebrated, Jennings and Snyder made their way home alone through a very cold February night.”

The life of women programmers after the ENIAC.

 The women programmers were not idle after their path breaking work with the ENIAC. The New York Times, mentions in Jean Jennings’ obituary,

“After the war, Ms. Bartik joined the Eniac designers, John Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchly, in their effort to develop the Univac, an early commercial computer, which was introduced in 1951. While at the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation — acquired by Remington Rand in 1950 — Ms. Bartik worked on hardware and software for both the Binac, a small computer made for Northrop Aircraft, and the general purpose Univac.”

According to the article in dreamhost.com,

“While history was quickly working to forget them, the ENIAC women had continued to press forward with technological advances. Each woman went on to make her own mark in the field: Lichterman stayed with the ENIAC program for two years to train new programmers, while Holbertson and Jennings helped convert the ENIAC into a “stored-program” machine. Holbertson created the first program that allowed for sorting and storing large data files, and members of the team would later work to develop guidelines and standards for a universal programming language. Jennings spent the remainder of her career working to make computers more accessible and easier to use.”

Unearthing of the women’s contribution by Kathy Kleiman and LeAnn Erickson.

 The story of the ENIAC women programmers were unearthed by 2 women independently (it seems so from the articles. There seems to be no connection between the 2 women). One was Kathy Kleiman who spent 20 years investigating the stories of the ENIAC women programmers and the other was LeAnn Erickson, who chanced upon the programmers while she was interviewing them for her documentary about women owned real estate agency.

Kathy Kleiman in her website on the ENIAC programmers gives us a detailed account of how she researched, found and redeemed the women.

Discovered by Kathy Kleiman, a young programmer in the mid-1980s, “the ENIAC programmers inspired me to stay in computing at a time when there were few women in my programming classes and every signal was telling me that computing was not a field for women,” she remembers.

The ENIAC programmers’ story was fascinating but lost for more than 50 years. Kathy devoted years to ground-breaking research in the University of Pennsylvania Archives and Library of Congress and recorded extensive broadcast-quality oral histories with four of the original six ENIAC programmers in the late 1990s with senior PBS Producer David Roland. Kathy applied for awards on the behalf of the ENIAC Programmers and joined them at the Computer History Museum, IEEE Computer Society, Women in Technology International and Women in Computing to celebrate their long-delayed recognition!

Jamie Gumbrecht in her article in the cnn.com, explains how LeAnn Erickson came across the ENIAC programmers.

To filmmaker LeAnn Erickson, it was history rediscovered.

It was 2003 and Erickson was interviewing sisters Shirley Blumberg Melvin and Doris Blumberg Polsky for her documentary, “Neighbor Ladies,” about a woman-owned real estate agency that helped to peacefully integrate a Philadelphia neighbourhood. The twins, long-retired by then, reluctantly mentioned a different sort of job they’d held during World War II: Female “computers.”

Computer, at that point, was a job title, not a machine. Long before the sisters were businesswomen, community activists, mothers or grandmothers, they were recruited by the U.S. military to do ballistics research. They worked six days a week, sometimes pulling double or triple shifts, along with dozens of other women.

The weapons trajectories they calculated were passed out to soldiers in the field and bombardiers in the air. Some of her colleagues went on to program the earliest of general-purpose computers, the ENIAC.

It wasn’t factory work, but they were “Rosies” nonetheless, filling jobs that men would’ve taken if they hadn’t been at war or wrapped up in other military research.

“I said ‘What are you talking about?’ ” Erickson recalled. “I’m an amateur women’s historian, but I’d never heard about this — white-collar women who worked doing math and science under the radar? I didn’t know.”

Erickson’s mission to recover the past became “Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of World War II,” a documentary. There were lots and lots of women, thousands of women doing this kind of work all across the United States,” Erickson said. “We just don’t know it.”

The documentaries outlining their work.

 Both the women mentioned above made documentaries on the ENIAC programmers. This is the story behind their documentaries.

According to Wikipedia,

“Top Secret Rosies: The Female “Computers” of WWII is a 2010 documentary film directed by LeAnn Erickson. The film is focused on recognizing the contributions of women during WWII, serving as human computers and six of whom went on to program one of the earliest computers, the ENIAC. Their work helped the United States improve the accuracy of weaponry as most conducted ballistics analysis. The film officially premiered on November 1 on PBS.

At the time, in the 1940s, when these women were doing this work, it was considered classified, moreover contemporaries considered programming a clerical task. Because of this, and because of their invisibility during the media coverage of ENIAC, the work of these women was largely unrecognized. Herman Goldstine selected the programmers from women who had been calculating ballistics tables with desk calculators and a differential analyzer prior to and during the development of ENIAC. Under Herman and Adele Goldstine’s direction, the programmers studied ENIAC’s blueprints and physical structure to determine how to manipulate its switches and cables, rather than learning a programming language.”

“…The film focuses on the contributions of several women, namely the Blumberg twins, Doris Polsky (née Blumberg) and Shirley Melvin (née Blumberg), Marlyn Meltzer (née Wescoff), Jean Bartik (a.k.a. Billie Jean Jennings). Kathleen Antonelli, is another ENIAC computer programmer recognized in the film. It has been taught widely in schools and universities and is credited for recognizing the little-known contributions of classified women technology workers during World War II and making that history available to public audiences. In the publication for American Association of University Women (AAUW), Erickson stated that the film is held in over 500 libraries worldwide.”

According to the website eniacprogrammers.org,

“In 2013, Kathy teamed up with award-winning documentary producers Jon Palfreman and Kate McMahon of the Palfreman Film Group to tell this incredible story in the stunning documentary short, The Computers. “The Computers documentary is designed to fit into every classroom and every computing club. ENIAC Programming Pioneers Betty Snyder Holberton, Jean Jennings Bartik, Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli and Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer tell their story—of how they programmed the first all-electronic, programmable computer, ENIAC, without any programming languages, tools or manuals!  They were amazing, brilliant, insightful, funny and riveting, and absolutely committed to making programming easier for the rest of us. They are Programming Pioneers to celebrate!” shares Kathy.

“Not only did they program the ENIAC, the first all-electronic, digital computer during WWII without manuals or programming languages, but they dedicated years after the war to making programming easier and more accessible for all of us who followed”, she adds.

The ENIAC Programmers story changes forever how we look at technology and computer history. It inspires young women, and young men, to believe that computing careers lie within their reach.”

You can watch the documentary by Kathy Kleiman here and the documentary by LeAnn Erickson here

Belated recognition.

 Recognition came late for the ENIAC programmers, more than 50 years after their exploits as the first computer programmers in the world.

 In a guest post written by Kathy Kleiman, who discovered the ENIAC Programmers 20 years before and founded the ENIAC Programmers Project to record their stories and produce the first feature documentary about their work, in Google’s blog in blogspot, she recounts,

 “For more than 50 years, the women of Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer(ENIAC) were forgotten, and their role in programming the first all-electronic programmable computer and creating the software industry lost. But this fall, old met young, and a great computer pioneer met today’s Internet pioneers. It happened in Silicon Valley and it happened at Google.

A little over a month ago, the Computer History Museum (CHM) in Mountain View honoured Jean Bartik with its Fellows Award. This lifetime achievement award recognized her work as a programmer of the ENIAC and leader of the team to convert ENIAC to a stored program machine.

The Fellows Award was a rousing celebration of Bartik, Bob Metcalfe and Linus Torvalds. The next night, Bartik returned to CHM to discuss her life story in An Evening with Jean Jennings Bartik, ENIAC Pioneer. More than 400 people attended. They laughed at Bartik’s descriptions of the ENIAC Programmers’ exploits and enjoyed her stories of “Technical Camelot,” Bartik’s description of her days at Eckert and Mauchly Computer Corporation in the 1950s.”

According to the article in cnn.com,

In 1997, Bartik was inducted into the Women in Technology Hall of Fame, along with her fellow ENIAC programmers, Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Frances Snyder Holberton, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Frances Bilas Spence and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum. In 2008, Bartik was one of the Fellow Award honorees at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, along with Robert Metcalfe, an inventor of Ethernet, and Linus Torvalds, who began the development of the Linux kernel.

Back in Missouri, Bartik’s alma mater became the first public U.S. college to install computer terminals, telephones and cable TV in every dorm room. By the late 1980s, more than 6,000 students there were communicating by e-mail and reading stories from the student newspaper on computer screens. History lives on there, too, at the Jean Jennings Bartik Computing Museum.

While the story of the ENIAC programmers is an inspiration to all, ENIAC was not the first fully functional computer. That was Colossus. It was not the first electronic digital computer. That was ABC(The Atanasoff Berry Computer). It was merely the first computer to be unveiled to the world. The founders of ENIAC lost their patent rights to the computer in a long drawn out court battle. We will cover that next week.

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