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  • Writer's pictureAyesha Nadeem

The Women Behind the First Computer

Updated: Mar 8

Written and published by Ayesha Nadeem





Originally planned to be a vehicle for enhanced bullet trajectory calculation in World War II, the ENIAC, or Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer, was the world's first fully programmable electronic computer, serving as the ancestor to modern computing and software engineering. This extensive, room-sized machine, consisting of approximately 18000 vacuum tubes, 40 panels, 1500 relays, and a plethora of switches, forever revolutionized humanity's perception of the power of programming. However, the role of the women involved, five women appointed to carry out the novel task of programming the machine, was concealed from the public eye. For nearly 50 years after ENIAC's unveiling, these women programmers' roles went unrecognized, plagued by miscommunication. It was 1942. World War II was raging. After Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7th, 1941, leading to the death of over 2400 American men, President Franklin Roosevelt exercised his executive powers to request that the U.S Congress declare war. On the very next day, December 8th, 1941, the President and US Congress declared war on Japan, pulling America into the raging global war. President Roosevelt addressed the nation that morning, instigating the rapid realignment of nation-wide priorities, societal norms, and civilian life. Over 2.2 million American men enrolled in the army within the first month of the war, leaving their homes to face the ravaging conflicts on the other side of the Earth. Back home, with jobs vacated and an exponentially expanding demand for industrial production on the American homefront, women stepped up, leaving their domestic roles to take up employment. These women took charge of several industries, keeping the economy operating and supplying the army with the supplies necessitated to thrive. With so much at stake at war, every resource had to be utilized to its full potential. Rations were instituted, carpooling was promoted, and new jobs were conceived. Behind every step of the war was a fierce amount of brawn and brain power instigated at the American homefront. In 1942, the US War Department sent out a call for women mathematicians, offering them competitive salaries of 2000 dollars a year to perform calculations. These calculations were used to create trajectory firing tables that men at the warfront could use to warrant the highest probability of success under specified trajectory angles and weather conditions. These calculations rendered a guideline of sorts to ensure the most efficient application of resources. Their calculations entailed an intricate understanding of calculus and the expertise to work under tremendous pressure. The task required lengthy periods of time to perform by hand. These women spent over 40 hours calculating each trajectory and producing charts and tables filled with different trajectories angles, and they came to be known as "computers." Eventually, however, the US Government began seeking out faster methods of making these calculations. The task was not as easy as it seemed. The mode of calculation needed to rapidly and efficiently make calculations while ensuring the same precision and accuracy that hand-calculation provided. In 1941, John Mauchly and John P. Eckert, two associate professors at the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Electrical Engineering, were in the midst of studying how vacuum tubes could be utilized for the benefit of the US Army. It was there that they were requested to innovate a way to accelerate trajectory firing table production rapidly. They theorized the idea of doing so by means of a computer machine that could take in data and process it through programming. This idea became the baseline for the ENIAC. The US Army successfully granted the project funding, and subsequently, its construction began in 1944 at the Moore School of Engineering. In the summer of 1945, months before WWII ended, the machine had been built, but the task of programming it to be robust and functional remained. They enlisted Captain Herman Goldsteine and his wife, Adele Goldsteine, mathematicians who had previously been in charge of recruiting the women calculators, to secure the women programmers. They recruited six women programmers to take charge of this mammoth, revolutionary task: Kay McNulty, Betty Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Fran Bilas, and Ruth Lichterman. There had never been something like this before, and the women had to innovate ways to interact and work with the computer. At first, they were not given security clearance and were forced to use vague diagrams of the machine and their knowledge of the calculations they had been making to create a plan. Once given clearance, the women had to find out how the computer worked and how they could wield programming to communicate with it. To program this machine, they had to break down the calculus into simple steps and then connect and flip thousands of cables, wires, and switches. Every step was planned out, yet there was some element of experimentation to it, as this machine was the first of its kind to have been able to compute and store numbers in this way.

The key to understanding the miscommunication is looking into the two primary factors that enabled it to thrive: post-war era society and media communication. After World War II was over, soldiers began coming home, engulfing the nation with a new surge of young, work-ready men. Arriving home to discover various industries and jobs driven by women, a massive propaganda campaign was established to promote women's assimilation back into smaller, pre-war occupations. Post-war media was charged with propaganda-filled images that subliminally conveyed that women needed to return to their previous roles. Images of women with vacuums, kitchen appliances, and other household products in media boomed during this time. This period perfectly aligned with the time in which the ENIAC was developed and revealed to the public. The ENIAC women were not alien to this stigma. Whether it was subtle or direct, the stigma directed at them thoroughly communicated that they were considered less of because they were women. The ENIAC women were appointed as programmers because, at the time, programming and computing were acknowledged as too trivial and insignificant for men to take part in. Computing was deemed comparable to doing hand calculations, and, in turn, others involved in the ENIAC's production undermined the significance of the programmers' roles. Additionally, despite all having majored in mathematics and being highly skilled, the women who programmed the ENIAC were classified as "sub-professionals," while the men involved, who had equivalent qualifications, were designated as "professionals." Their architectural work with the machine's configurations and hardware was acknowledged as the vital, laborious, and revolutionary work.

Women models, known as "refrigerator models," were known to stand next to appliances such as refrigerators to promote them. On the day of ENIAC's unveiling, reporters and scientists from across the country came to marvel at the machine, which could calculate numbers in mere seconds. The names, roles, and contributions of the ENIAC programmers were not mentioned nor acknowledged by any press members. The ENIAC women were not invited to the celebratory dinner afterward or any subsequent parties or interviews. Their roles had been all but eradicated from the eyes of the public, and, despite appearing in pictures and being shown working with the machine on its unveiling day, their presence was marred by the media. At the time, people deemed them as mere models, and no one questioned their presence or connected them to the machine's making. Additionally, the presence and portrayal of women in mass media during the postwar era created a long-term effect on how historians perceived these images until the 1970s. Because of the recurring media trends in history, seeing women standing next to the ENIAC communicated nothing out of the ordinary. Due to these women's names not being shared in any articles or journalism from that time, historians continued to push them aside as refrigerator models, without giving any credit for the work they did.


Citations

“Women in the News. Vol. 1, No. 34.” The Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2018600179/.

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