Our First Computer Programmers

by Geek Squad Agent ‎04-03-2015 12:18 PM - edited ‎07-14-2016 11:20 AM (486 Views)

The role of women in the world of technology has been all over the news lately. First there was Gamergate (women gamers and game designers being subjected to graphic insults by Internet trolls), then questions about how women are treated in the boardroom (the Ellen Pao lawsuit), and the steady stream of stories about the struggles of women trying to get recognition in the highly-competitive tech world.


Women have a tough time breaking into traditionally male strongholds. But, as just about any female police officer will tell you, the barriers have more to do with perception than ability. One of the things I learned participating in our Geek Squad Academy camps is girls can understand technology as well as boys and, when given the chance, will develop and deliver amazing tech products.


Which got me thinking about a story about the first computer programmers a professor of mine told me in college. Toward the end of World War II, the Army was looking for a more efficient way to calculate artillery-firing tables for different weapons fired under different conditions. At the time, these complicated calculations were done by hand – a time-consuming, laborious process. It appears that the leadership of the Ballistics Research Laboratory, the branch of the Army Ordinance Corps responsible for the calculations, heard about a couple University of Pennsylvania faculty members who were working on something that could speed up the process. The professors – John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert – had been creating more advanced mechanical calculating machines and were experimenting with using vacuum tubes to speed up the calculations. Mauchly and Eckert proposed a project in which they would design and build a machine that could perform calculations one thousand times faster than existing calculating machines.


The Electrical Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) took about a year to design and another eighteen months to build. Although the war was over before the ENIAC was ready, this first general-purpose electronic computer was used extensively in the design of the hydrogen bomb, weather prediction and wind-tunnel design.


The names of Mauchly and Eckert are well known in the computer field. What is less well known is none of this would have been possible without the dedication of group of young mathematicians who became the first computer programmers. And, while the machine’s designers and builders were recognized for their work, the contributions of these first programmers have been pretty much ignored. Considering the way gender roles were handled in the workplace in those days, overlooking the programmers is not that surprising, All the ENIAC designers and builders were men. All the programmers were women.


During the war, nearly two hundred women, both civilian and military, performed calculations for the Army’s Ballistic Research Laboratory. Six of these “computers” were selected to program this new, gigantic machine. The ENIAC programmers – Jean Bartik, Betty Snyder, Kay McNulty, Marlyn Wescoff, Ruth Lichterman and Fran Bilas– began their work while the ENIAC was still being built. Since the engineers were too busy with the hardware to put together any programming manuals or hold classes, the programmers taught themselves. Figuring out how ENIAC worked by reviewing logic and electrical block diagrams, they put together an approach to programming it. Using flow charts and programming sheets they created, they wrote the program that ran the machine.


With this early electronic computer, writing the program was the easy part. Because the program was not stored on the machine, it had to be set up on ENIAC’s 40 plugboards and three “portable functional tables.” Each of the functional tables contained 1,200 ten-way switches. The programmers set up the machine by plugging wires into the plugboards and setting the functional switches in specific arrangements designed to let the calculations cascade through the computer. Setting the program usually took several days and many more days were spent in testing.


As we struggle to get women and girls more involved in technology and science, this story of the first computer programmers is important. Kathy Kleiman, a young programmer struggling with the lack of women in her computer science classes, stumbled across an old picture of the ENIAC in one of the stacks of her college library. When she asked about the women in the picture, Kleiman was told they were “models.”




As her interest in ENIAC grew, she discovered the women in the picture were the original programmers of the machine, not models. This inspired her to write her senior thesis at Harvard on the ENIAC Programmers and go on to found a non-profit dedicated to publicizing the contributions of these original programmers. Her efforts resulted in a documentary film called “The Computers” which premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival in May, 2014.


I look forward to seeing the movie about these incredible women when it comes to a theater in my area. For information about screenings, visit the ENIAC Programmers Project website.

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