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Did you know the first computer programmers were women?


ENIAC computer programmers

This is an unusual time for people across the globe as governments around the world impose social distancing and confinement measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. Even so, it is still Women’s History Month, so we thought now would be a great time to remember and celebrate the six women who laid the groundwork for the field of computer programming during one of history’s most trying times: World War II.

In 1942, the U.S. Army began hiring women to calculate complex mathematical equations for long-distance missile trajectories. By 1945, there were over 100 women calculating the huge number of equations needed for the ballistics tables. These equations were so complex it took about 40 hours to calculate each one by hand. Because they did computations, these women were called “computers.”

The ENIAC computer was developed as a top-secret U.S. Army project to speed up the calculations. It was the world’s first all-electronic, programmable computer, measuring eight feet tall and eighty feet long – it occupied an entire room! Once the machine was built, they needed someone to program it – it needed to be told what to do, and how to do it. For this accomplishment, six women were selected from the group of more than 100 “computers.”

These six women became the world’s very first computer programmers and created the very first software (although the word software would not be used until later). Here are their names: Betty Snyder Holberton, Jean Jennings Barik, Kay McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum and Frances Bilas Spence. Of course, since no one had ever programmed a computer before, these women figured everything out on their own.

Until recently, history had forgotten that the field of computer programming was started by women! When the ENIAC was declassified after the end of the war, the women were not introduced to the public, even though they were in many of the photos taken of the computer.

Forty years later, in the 1980s, Kathy Kleiman came across photos of the ENIAC computer while studying at Harvard and wondered who the women in the photos were. Her research led her to the four surviving women of the original six, and she heard their fascinating stories. She founded the ENIAC Programmers Project to record their stories and give them the recognition they deserve. As the programmers’ stories began to reach the public, they began winning prestigious awards from the Association of Women in Computing, the Computer History Museum and IEEE Computer Society, as well as being inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame.

The ENIAC Programmers Project also produced a documentary about the women called The Computers, which premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival and won Best Documentary Short from the United Nations Association Film Festival.

We love relating this story because it shows how important it is to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of everyone, no matter their gender or origin, and to be as inclusive as possible in the development of technology and science. This is why programs like GLAM that encourage more girls to get interested in STEM careers are so important.

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