70 years ago, six Philly women became the world's first digital computer programmers
Without any real training, they learned what it took to make ENIAC work – and made it a humming success. Their contributions were overlooked for decades.
”In 1945, the U.S. Army recruited six women working as computers at the University of Pennsylvania to work full-time on a secret government project. For the next year, they used their creativity, tenacity and solid backgrounds in mathematis to become the original programmers of the world’s first electronic general-purpose computer, called ENIAC.
“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.”
“They stepped in to do a job that they didn’t understand, that nobody understood,” said Bill Mauchly, a Berwyn resident who hopes to put together a Philadelphia-area museum honoring ENIAC. “So they had to invent, discover, and learn how to work this machine without any real training. In that sense, they were real trailblazers.”
He believes they were probably the first people to have “programmer” as a job title, even though it was nothing like the occupation of today. Babysitting this giant, complex computer was very physical work, requiring them to haul cables and trays to different parts of the room-sized machine to get it to run programs correctly. They would even crawl inside the hug structure to fix faulty links and bad tubes.
“The first time I talked to Betty Holberton, who wrote the demo program for [the Feb. 15 ENIAC public unveiling], she said to me, 'There was this big dinner that night, and we girls were not even invited,'” said Marcus, who had confirmed this fact earlier by looking at the guest list in the Smithsonian archives. “The women were viewed as operators of the machine. They were there to help men figure out how to use the computer and were given basically no credit, and their role was entirely minimized. The fact that they weren’t invited to the dinner is pretty telling, I think.”
Read the full piece here