Women pioneered early Army computing
Elizabeth Jean Jennings and Frances Bilas preparing for the public unveiling of ENIAC.

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- Anyone interested in the history of computing knows of the U.S. Army's ground-breaking Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer. ENIAC was the world's first operational, general purpose, electronic digital computer.

The computer consisted of 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors, 1,500 relays, 6,000 manual switches and 5 million soldered joints. Eight feet high, it covered 1800 square feet (167 square meters) of floor space, weighed 30 tons and consumed 160 kilowatts per hour of electrical power.

Initially utilized to support the Manhattan Project near the end of World War II, it was demonstrated to the public on Feb. 15, 1946 and evolved during the next few years to become the first operating, stored-program computer.

ENIAC was operated first at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. In late 1946 to early 1947, it was dismantled and moved to the Ballistics Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground, becoming operational there on July 29, 1947.

The world of early computer design and construction was a male-dominated work domain; however, manpower demands of WWII enabled women with mathematical degrees or an ability in different types of mathematics to operate the equipment, receiving the title of "computers."

Women were soon regarded as capable of "computing" more quickly and more accurately than men.

Once the ENIAC was ready to perform as a stored-program computer, the need arose for another type of computer specialist, the programmer. Six women, from a pool of nearly 100 women employed by the BRL, were hired in June 1945 as the first programmers.

They are listed here, using their maiden names as they were all unmarried at the time, their universities and majors:

Kathleen McNulty, Chestnut Hill College for Women, Philadelphia (Mathematics)
Frances Bilas, Chestnut Hill College for Women, Philadelphia (Mathematics)
Elizabeth Jean Jennings, Northwest Missouri State Teachers' College (Mathematics)
Frances Elizabeth Snyder, University of Pennsylvania (English & Journalism)
Ruth Lichterman, Hunter College (Mathematics)
Marlyn Wescoff, Temple University (Social Studies & English)

Two of the women were told that "girls really didn't study mathematics in college." Once hired at a sub-professional level, they were told that only men could get professional ratings. Finally, in November 1946, many of the women then employed received professional ratings.

The programmers initially studied logical block diagrams of the ENIAC and asked questions of the design engineers. Understanding what ENIAC could do or not do, the women began to be qualified in troubleshooting problems, even down to replacing one of the 17,468 vacuum tubes.

A trajectory program was the first to be completed and was run as part of the public demonstration.

The first six programmers of the ENIAC exemplify what Women's History Month tries to showcase. All six were intelligent. They didn't want to teach, which was expected of college-educated women at the time. They were resourceful, working without user manuals, re-configuring ENIAC as the programs changed. As true pioneers, they helped launch the age of computing.

Page last updated Mon March 18th, 2013 at 13:23