Professor Kathryn Kleiman’s Research on Women in Early Programming Highlighted at ENIAC 75th Anniversary Celebrations
February 15, 2021
Today, February 15th, is the 75th anniversary of ENIAC, the world’s first modern computer. For years the story of ENIAC was told as a history of pioneering hardware, with a team led by Dr. John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert. It is a great story, but one missing a critical element: the role of its six original programmers, all young women who stepped up to help the US Army during WWII.
This is the story that PIJIP and Glushko-Samuelson Intellectual Property Law Clinic Professor Kathryn Kleiman has researched since her undergraduate years. “The story of computer hardware seemed well-told, I found as a student, but the early history of programming was missing.” She located the first six people assigned to be programmers of ENIAC: Betty Snyder Holberton, Jean Jennings Bartik, Kathleen McNulty Mauchly, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer Frances Bilas Spence and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum and conducted extensive oral histories. She learned the story of how these women programmed ENIAC for its WWII purpose – for lightning-fast calculations of ballistics trajectories for Army artillery firing tables. She discovered that the ENIAC 6 learned to program ENIAC without any computer manuals (none written) or any programming languages (none existed).
On February 15, 1946, six months after WWII ended, ENIAC was unveiled to the press and the public. On this day 75 years ago, leading technologists flocked to the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania to witness the introduction of the world first general-purpose, programmable, all-electronic computer. ENIAC's huge hardware captured attention, but it was the lightning-fast calculation of the ballistics trajectory program (a differential calculus equation) that captured imaginations. The technologists, the press and the public learned about ENIAC, but not about the ENIAC Programmers who were not introduced and fell out of history.
Professor Kleiman’s work of many years bore fruit this year. For this 75th Anniversary, in the public celebrations taking place online at UNISYS and UPenn, are finally sharing the stories of the ENIAC Programmers prominently alongside the stories of the engineers. Finally, after three-quarters of the century, the women are being celebrated alongside the men – a brilliant team of young hardware engineers and pioneering programmers who changed computing significantly.
For Zoom links to events today and 2/18, see ENIACday.org/events (records will be posted too).
For more on the ENIAC Programmers, see ENIACProgrammers.org and Professor Kleiman’s award-winning documentary, The Computers: The Remarkable story of the ENIAC Programmers.