beanz Magazine

The First Computors

Six women were hired to use their math skills to program the ENIAC computer. They called themselves The First Programmers Club.

ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computor) was the first successful electronic and digital computer designed to calculate ballistic trajectories during World War II. The work involved often complex calculations. Because the calculations were considered clerical work, six women were hired to use their math skills to program the computer. Their title was computor. They called themselves The First Programmers Club.

These women learned to program ENIAC before they had access to the computer. They used the blueprints to define rewiring and mechanical switches needed to calculate trajectories step by step. ENIAC weighed 30 tons, used 200 kw of power, 18,000 vacuum tubes, 1500 relays, and hundreds of thousands of resistors, capacitors, and inductors. The computer was 80 feet (24 meters) long.

On the 50th anniversary of ENIAC’s successful launch, most of these women were not included or recognized despite their critical work programming the computer to perform its calculations. Kathy Kleiman, a programmer in the 1980s, founded the ENIAC Programmers Project to document the contributions and successes of these six women and other early women programmers.

Here are short biographies for the six original ENIAC programmers plus Adele Goldstine who wrote the original operations guide for the computer and trained some the programmers.

Betty Holberton

On her first day of college to study math, a professor asked if she would be better off at home raising children. Holbertson switch to study journalism, one of the few careers open to women in the 1940s, because it let her explore subjects that interested her. She found a job with the US Army at the University of Pennsylvania calculating ballistic missle trajectories. She was hired as one of the original ENIAC programmers based on her work and led the team. Holbertson went on to work with Grace Hopper developing COBOL and FORTRAN, two early critical programming languages.

 

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