Women's First Roles in the 20th Century Computer World: The ENIAC

At the dawn of World War Two, it became evident to the Ballistic Research Laboratory (BRL) in Aberdeen, Maryland that it needed a new method for calculating ballistic tables for gunners in the war. These tables were extremely important to the gunners, who had the location of a target, the distance to it (the range), and the angle to the target from a cardinal direction. He needed, however, a conversion of the angle through the vertical plane of the gun. This was so that he knew how high to raise the weapon when firing; because of gravity and the projectory of the bullet, one cannot fire directly at a target. The gunner also had information pertaining to any head, tail, and cross winds in the area, the local air density, and the weights of his shells. Prior to the early 1930s, women calculated tables for this information and "every combination of gun, shell, and fuse" (Goldstine 135-6) -- women had this responsibility, since the Army considered it clerical work, which men "lacked the patience" for (Petzinger 1). It took roughly 20 hours for a person to calculate one such table manually. Around 1930, however, it quickly became apparent to the BRL that this was not efficient, and the organization began using a Bush differential analyzer to do the calculations. By using this machine, the time to calculate one table was cut to approximately 15 minutes. As time went by, however, even this improved time was inadequate for the vast number of tables which needed to be calculated; in 1935, the Army set up a contract with the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Electrical Engineering to allow the BRL full use of their faster Bush analyzer (Weik 2). Once this contract was in place, the BRL began instituting programs at the Moore School as part of an extensive project by the US Government to train people in various technical fields to assist in the war effort. Lieutenant Paul Gillon, for example, instituted classes for young women with science degrees, and contracted some of the School's instructors to train these women in ballistic computing. In 1942, a BRL officer by the name of Herman Goldstine took over operations at the Moore School. He terminated the Moore School's contracts with the instructors of the ballistic classes, and appointed three women as teaching staff instead: his wife Adele, Mildred Kramer, and Mary Mauchly. While an instructor, Adele Goldstine also made frequent trips to colleges throughout the Northeastern United States, in the hopes of recruiting more knowledgeable young women to be trained at the Moore School. Shortly thereafter, the Women's Army Corps (WAC) formed, and some of these women became available as "computers" to the BRL.

As mentioned earlier, the Bush differential analyzer, while able to perform calculations more quickly than a human, was still inefficient for the vast amounts of tables that the BRL required. A digital machine would not have the speed restrictions that the analog device had; however, no existing machine would run faster than the Bush analyzer. Therefore, the optimal course of action seemed to be to design a new machine that used a digital approach, but had considerable speed enhancements. In 1942, John Mauchly, a professor at the Moore school, circulated a brief memorandum summarizing his ideas on differential and harmonic analyzers; it caught the attention of a graduate student named Presper Eckert, and the two began communicating frequently. In April of 1943, a committee (including Mauchly, Eckert, Herman Goldstine, and Lieutenant Paul Gillon) met with the director of the BRL to discuss ideas about a new digital computing machine. "At this meeting," Goldstine relates, "Gillon named the proposed machine the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer and gave it the acronym ENIAC" (150).

Two years later, in April of 1945, the machine was complete. Adele Goldstine and a colleague produced an operating manual, a technical report, and a maintenance manual for the ENIAC. Later that year, Herman Goldstine put together a team of "six of the best computers to learn how to program the ENIAC." These "computers" included Kathleen (McNulty) Antonelli, Frances (Bilas) Spence, Jean (Jennings) Bartik, Elizabeth (Synder) Holberton, Ruth (Lichterman) Teitelbaum, and Marilyn (Wescoff) Meltzer (Goldstine 202, Petzinger 2). Although there is no mention in Goldstine's recollection of the history of the ENIAC as to the vast importance of these seven women (including his wife Adele), it is evident in his writing that these women were responsible for the majority of the programming and maintenance of the ENIAC:

Holberton [the man in charge of the six women programmers] and his group had been assigned the responsibility...of becoming the programming staff for the ENIAC when it was turned over by the Moore School to the government [in July 1945]. ... They were trained largely by my wife, with some help from me...[t]he only persons who really had a completely detailed knowledge of how to program the ENIAC were my wife and me. Indeed, Adele Goldstine wrote the only manual on the operation of the machine (Goldstine 229-30).

At that point, "programming" the ENIAC meant "setting dozens of dials and plugging a ganglia of heavy black cables into the face of the machine, a different configuration for every program" (Petzinger 2). To ease this burden, Jean Bartik -- one of the original programmers of the ENIAC -- teamed up with Adele Goldstine in 1946 to lead a group that implemented the mathematician John von Neumman's "stored program" computer. The stored program machine relieved programmers of needing to reconfigure the cables for each equation that the machine solved.

Unfortunately, the women faced many trials as programmers: "their government job rating was SP, as in 'subprofessional.' Initially, they were prohibited as security risks from entering the ENIAC room, forcing them to learn the machine from wiring diagrams." (Petzinger 2-3). Apart from the difficulties and discrimination that these women faced at the time, many re-tellings of the ENIAC's history barely even mention their contributions. Karen Coyle laments this fact in her essay "How Hard Can It Be": "It takes difficult eyes to see where women have been and what they have done. The role of women like Ada Lovelace or Admiral Grace Hopper...will not appear on the pages of books that look to glorify male heroes." (45). Even Herman Goldstine's precise and detailed recollection of the ENIAC and the circumstances surrounding its existence merely categorically lists the names of the women programmers -- misspelling one of them -- and mentions which of the male engineers that each woman eventually married. Sadly, it therefore appears that Coyle's interpretation of the way that patriarchal histories remember influential women is correct.

Between World War II and the end of the century, there was very little activity from women within the field of computer science. This inactivity most likely stemmed from the contemporary societal pressures that told women to remain housewives. The notable exception during this time was Grace Murray Hopper. In 1949, Hopper joined the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation as a Senior Mathematician, and in 1953 wrote the first compiler, for the COBOL language. In 1969, she won the first-ever Computer Science Man of the Year Award from the Data Processing Management Association, and in 1973 became the first person from the United States and the first woman of any nationality to become a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society (The ADA Project, 1-2). Unfortunately, however, women like Grace Murray Hopper were a minority in the post-World War II era, and it would not be until the 1990s that women again became prevalent in the computer field.


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