The secret mission of the first computer programmers

Summary:BOSTON -- Four of the pioneers of computer programming were honored at a conference here Monday night. And, contrary to the boys'-only image of programming, they were all women.

BOSTON -- Four of the pioneers of computer programming were honored at a conference here Monday night. And, contrary to the boys'-only image of programming, they were all women.

Jean Jennings Bartik, Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer and Frances "Betty" Snyder Holberton were four of 80 women mathematicians hired by the U.S. Army during World War II to take part in a top-secret project that would ultimately transform them into the world's first computer programmers. At the Women in Technology International Summit (WITI) here Monday night, the women were all hailed as "the digital equivalents of Rosie the Riveter."

These pioneers were recruited in 1945 to tackle a job never done before: To program, at the machine level, the first all-electronic digital computer -- the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC.

Unlike today's powerful and versatile computers, the massive ENIAC -- some 80 feet long and nine feet tall, and operating through the use of 18,000 vacuum tubes -- had no stored programs. Each task assigned to it had to be painstakingly hand-programmed -- until this groundbreaking team of women came along, historian Kathryn Kleiman told several hundred attendees at the event. The ENIAC women programmed the machine to calculate in seconds the ballistics trajectories for Army weaponry, an arduous task that had previously taken hours to do by hand.

"They had to learn all the hardware" making up the gigantic machine, teach themselves how to communicate an idea to the computer, and then, for the first time in the history of computing, put that process into action, said Kleiman, who is working on a documentary about the ENIAC women.

'Exhilarating times' for programmers
Bartik (who years later helped develop the microcomputer) said the group was handed a pile of "block diagrams," or maps of the machine's wiring, and instructed to become intimately familiar with those at the same time as they programmed the ENIAC.

Asked if they ever feared the task would prove too difficult, Bartik said: "Never."

She described the classified project to improve the accuracy of the Army's weaponry as one of the most exhilarating times of her life.

"We had so much fun," Bartik recalled. "This was a time when I really looked forward to going to work each day and thinking through these problems and finding solutions."

Shortage of male mathematicians
The Army sought out the few women holding mathematics degrees because male mathematicians were so scarce in the U.S. during the war, explained Antonelli.

One of three women math majors in the class of 1942 at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, Antonelli said she was unsure what she might do with her degree until she saw the Army's ad in the newspaper.

"They said they wanted women with math degrees, but they didn't say for what," she said. She, like the others, reported to the University of Pennsylvania to take part in the ENIAC experiment.

Gender not an issue
Asked what it was like to work for the Army as women in the 1940s, Meltzer said the group was too focused on the importance of their task to worry about gender issues.

"This is what we were told to do and we did it," Meltzer said. "We didn't think about gender."

But the group knew that they were taking part in something monumental.

"We knew we were pushing back frontiers," said Bartik. "But of course we had no idea how far the industry would go, and what would happen with the disk technology and the Internet technology of today," she said, adding that the Internet "blows my mind."

'We were the central processor'
"We were like architects or construction engineers," said Holberton, who later went on to be instrumental in setting standards for the COBOL and FORTRAN programming languages.

Bartik concluded, "We were really like the central processor of the machine, because it didn't have its own central processor."

The ENIAC would continue to be used for a decade, running programs for 100 scientific experiments, Bartik said. "This wasn't a Tinker Toy. This was a real machine," she said.

Ironically, at the time, the achievements of the ENIAC machine itself were viewed as more groundbreaking than what the women programmers had achieved, Antonelli said.

"It wasn't really until (Microsoft Corp. CEO Bill) Gates came along that people really recognized the contributions of the programmers," she said.

Topics: Tech Industry

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.