As part of a secret World War Two project, six young women programmed the first all-electronic programmable computer, ENIAC, Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer. It was designed and used to calculate artillery firing tables for the United States Army and its first programs included a study of the feasibility of the hydrogen bomb. When the project was introduced to the public, as a “Giant Brian” in 1946, the women were not credited for their work. The primary programmers were Kay McNulty, Betty Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Fran Bilas and Ruth Lichterman. They not only determined how to input ENIAC programs, but even debugged problems by crawling inside the massive structure to find bad joints and bad tubes!
Kay McNulty was born in County Donegal. Her father was an Irish Republican Army training officer who was imprisoned in Derry Jail for two years. On his release, the family emigrated to the United States and settled in Pennsylvania. After graduating high school she studied mathematics and graduated with a degree in mathematics, one of only a few mathematics majors out of a class of 92 women. During World War II, the US Army was hiring women to calculate bullet and missile trajectories for the US Army and, after graduating, she joined the The Ballistic Research Laboratory.
She was joined by Fran Bilas, a maths and physics graduate who Kay knew from college. When the War ended, both Fran and Kay continued working on the ENIAC project where they collaborated with other leading mathematicians.
Betty Jennings was born in Missouri and attended Northwest Missouri State Teachers College, majoring in mathematics as the only math major from her college. Betty became part of a group charged with converting the ENIAC into a stored program computer. When the war ended she went on to work with the ENIAC designers and helped them develop the BINAC and UNIVAC I computers.
Betty Snyder was born in Philadelphia. On her first day of classes at the University of Pennsylvania, her maths professor asked her if she wouldn’t be better off at home raising children. Betty decided to study journalism, one of the few fields open to women as a career in the 1940s. During WW2 Betty was hired by the Moore School of Engineering to work as a computor, and was soon chosen to be one of the six women to program the ENIAC. After the war she helped to develop the UNIVAC computer.
Marlyn Wescoff graduated from Temple University and was hired by the Moore School of Engineering to perform weather calculations, mainly because she knew how to operate an adding machine. In 1943 she was hired to perform calculations for ballistics trajectories and joined the ENIAC project.
Ruth Lichterman graduated from Hunter College with a B.Sc. in Mathematics. Along with Marlyn Meltzer, Ruth was part of a special area of the ENIAC project. Using analogue technology, they calculated ballistic trajectory equations.
For decades these amazing women were ignored by computing history. A computer historian told a reseacher that the women in the ENIAC photographs were “just refrigerator ladies” who had been posed in front of the machine “to make it look good.” At the 40th anniversary of the ENIAC project at the University of Pennsylvania the women were initially not even asked to attend. Only one was invited – as a spouse!
These six women created the beginning of the software industry and while they were inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame, deserve even greater recognition for their contribution to computer technology.
To get involved and sponsor a woman from history who you think deserves greater recognition, click here