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The Women Programmers of ENIAC

Ballistics, University of Pennsylvania

ENIAC, the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer, was designed by engineers John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert of the University of Pennsylvania. Financed by the United States Army during World War II, it was the first electronic digital computer created capable of being reprogrammed. Its ultimate purpose was to help the army calculate artillery firing tables, but its initial use was for calculations for the hydrogen bomb.

Specs on the ENIAC were unimaginable: 18,000 vacuum tubes, 7,200 crystal diodes, 70,000 resistors; it took up 680 square feet, weighed 30 short tons and used 150 kilowatts of power. This was the mother of all computers up to that point in time and the predecessor to electronic digital computers of this day.

Its size and capacity were not the only unique thing about ENIAC. Six women were chosen to be the programmers of this behemoth general-purpose calculator, another little-known fact in women’s history.

The women were referred to as “computers” and their ballistics calculations were integral to the precision of World War II weaponry. Once the war was over, six women were chosen to be the first programmers of ENIAC. Their work helped usher in the new computer age.

Kathleen “Kay” McNulty Mauchly Antonelli

Born in Ireland, Kathleen’s family migrated to the United States in 1924. Her father had served two years in prison upon his participation in the Irish War of Independence. McNulty graduated from Chestnut Hill College for Women with a degree in mathematics in 1942.

During her job search, McNulty saw an ad in a local newspaper for women with degrees in mathematics. She and friend, Frances Bilas both responded to the ad and were hired at a rate of $1,620 per year. Being her first job after graduation, McNulty accepted the position. It was explained that they would be calculating ballistics trajectories for the war effort. Both McNulty and Bilas wanted to serve in some capacity.

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McNulty worked in an empty classroom at Moore School along with about 75 other females who had responded to the ad. Many of the women dropped out due to the tediousness of the job, but McNulty and Bilas remained and were soon moved to work in the basement on the differential analyzer. Ballistics computations which took McNulty about 40 hours to compute could be done on the analyzer in about 50 minutes.

From Moore School, McNulty went to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds for further training and then back to Moore School to work on the ENIAC. The classified nature of the project did not permit the programmers to even enter the room where the ENIAC was stored. They had to create programs based upon blueprints. Once a program was devised, then the women were allowed to test the program on the ENIAC computer.

Jean Bartik

Born Betty Jean Jennings in Missouri, Bartik majored in mathematics at Northwest Missouri State Teachers College. She worked at Aberdeen Proving Ground for Army Ordnance. She was selected as one of the first programmers on the ENIAC. She also headed a group which converted the ENIAC into a stored program computer.

Bartik further worked on the BINAC and UNIVAC I computers. She was an editor for Auerbach Publishers which was an early publisher of high technological information. She left Auerbach for a position as Senior Editor for the Communications Services publication at Data Decisions. But when Data Decision was acquired by McGraw-Hill, Bartik was without a job when the company was shut down.

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Bartik holds an MS in English from the University of Pennsylvania and an honorary Dr. of Science from Northwest Missouri University. A museum at Northwest Missouri State University is named for Bartik.

Betty Holberton

Born Frances Elizabeth Snyder in 1917, Holberton was discouraged from studying for a degree in mathematics by her math professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She opted for Journalism instead as this was one of the few fields open to women at the time.

Despite not having a degree in mathematics, Holberton was hired by the Moore School and was soon chosen to participate in the ENIAC project.

After World War II, Holberton worked at Remington Rand as the Chief of Programming Research Branch, Applied Mathematics Laboratory. She went on to help develop the UNIVAC as well as being the writer of the first statistical analysis package used for the 1950 U.S. Census. She also worked with Grace Hopper in the development of COBOL and Fortran programming languages.

In 1997, Holberton received the Augusta Ada Lovelace Award, one of the highest honors for computer programmers.

She died December 8, 2001.

Marlyn Meltzer

Born Marlyn Wescoff, Meltzer graduated from Temple University in 1942. She went to work later that year for Moore School performing weather calculations. She was then hired to work on the ENIAC system in 1945. She resigned two years later to get married.

Frances Spence

Frances Bilas was born in 1922 and, with Kay McNulty, she was hired to work on the ENIAC system. In 1947, she married Homer Spence who was an electrical engineer at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds where the women “computers” received further training before working on the ENIAC system. Shortly after their marriage, Spence resigned from the project to raise a family.

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Ruth Teitelbaum

Teitelbaum (born Lichterman) graduated with a B.Sc. In Mathematics from Hunter College. She was hired as one of the programmers for the ENIAC system. She traveled with the ENIAC when it was transferred from Moore School to the Ballistics Research Laboratory at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds. She remained there for two more years to train the subsequent group of ENIAC programmers.

Teitelbaum died in Dallas, Texas in 1986.

All six women were inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame in 1997.

Today a silicon chip that is only 0.02 inches on one side can hold the same amount of information as the ENIAC.

Obviously, not much biographical information is available on a number of these women. However, LeAnn Erickson, an independent video/filmmaker and college professor at Temple University, has a forthcoming documentary: “Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of World War II.” It is currently in post production. A trailer for the documentary is available for viewing.