Ada Lovelace Day: The ENIAC “Computers” (i.e., Programmers) — Kathleen McNulty, Mauchly Antonelli, Jean Jennings Bartik, Frances Synder Holber, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Frances Bilas Spence, and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum (and 80 more!)

October 14, 2014

Yay! Another Ada Lovelace day!

So, this year, I will have gotten my post up in time. I also need to make good on last year’s pledge to discuss Birte’s papers. So, first thing is first: Today’s post.

Jean Jennings (left), Marlyn Wescoff (center), and Ruth Lichterman program ENIAC at the University of Pennsylvania, circa 1946.

Ada Lovelace is commonly heralded as the first computer programmer so it makes a ton of sense (and I’m sure has been done to death) celebrate the first modern programmers: The ENIAC “Computers”.

There’s a great article about them on the WITI hall of fame. (I’m gonna lose a few days to that site!)

Note that the task was about a billion times harder than programming today:

They had none of the programming tools of today. Instead, the programmers had to physically program the ballistics program by using the 3000 switches and dozens of cables and digit trays to physically route the data and program pulses through the machine. Therefore, the description for the first programming job might have read: “Requires physical effort, mental creativity, innovative spirit, and a high degree of patience.”

So the article is about the first 6 (see the title) who went on to do more great things later. (Kathy Kleiman has been doing a ton of research and made a documentary I’m dying to see.) But I’m also interested in the next 80. From what I’ve read, the reason the Army recruited women was the dearth of men (a la Rosie the Riveter; indeed there seems to be an earlier documentary about them called Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII (can’t wait to see it!)).

So, the dawn of modern computing, and most of the programmers are women. What the hell happened!? Why are they even more celebrated (a la Turing! or even Rosie?).

There’s a very nice article by W. Barkley Fritz with some quotes from interviews of the original 6 and some later computers. This bit from Kay McNulty stood out for me:

The key to doing the job was a knowledge of numerical in- tegration, a topic outside the math curriculum at Chestnut Hill College. When we confessed we didn’t even know what the term meant, we were each given a copy of a very thick book by Scarborough [3] and told to read certain chapters. Reading the assigned material was not much help. It was not until we were given our own calculators and the huge sheets of paper and shown step by step how the integration was done that we began to realize what was expected of us. We then got to work.

“We then got to work.” Of course they did!

Let me add that I’m especially tickled that this is all happening in Philadelphia. How did I not know this before now?!?!

Thinking about what they did reminds me of the old cartoon about Ginger Rodgers:

Three people are looking at an advert for a Fred Astaire Film Festival and the woman says, 'Sure he was great. But don't forget that Ginger Rodgers did everything he did...backwards and in high heels.

They did everything we do today except with nothing but wires, switches, brains, and guts.

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