The Previously Untold History of Women in Programming (at Penn)

tmjTanya M. Johnson received a JD from Penn Law and is currently pursuing a masters degree in library and information science from Rutgers University.  As a graduate intern at the WIC and EC, Tanya teaches various workshops and assists in the ScholarlyCommons department.  This is her first PennWIC blog post.

ENIAC and its Women Programmers
Image of the ENIAC and two of its Programmers, Frances Bilas Spence and Jean Jennings Bartik, ca. 1947, courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Archives Digital Image Collection

As a new graduate intern at WIC, I was recently given the unique opportunity to take an insider’s tour of the Penn campus with Librarian Joe Holub.  One of our stops on the tour was inside the Engineering building to see a display of the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), the first general-purpose, electronic computer.  The ENIAC was originally constructed at Penn in the mid-1940s, during World War II, as part of a U.S. Army project that sought to run ballistics trajectories and other complex mathematical calculations quickly.

While I had known about the ENIAC prior to the tour, I was not previously aware of the important role played by several women in the operation and programming of the ENIAC.  Apparently, most of the world was not aware of this either — until the mid-1980s, when Kathy Kleiman, then a young programmer doing research on the history of the ENIAC, discovered photographs of the ENIAC in which several women were pictured but not named.  After many years of research, Ms. Kleiman was able to identify not only their names, but also the important contributions these women made in programming the ENIAC and in later developments in the field of computing.  In the late 1990s, she recorded oral histories with four of the ENIAC programmers — Betty Snyder Holberton, Jean Jennings Bartik, Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, and Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer.  The other female ENIAC programmers were Frances Bilas Spence and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum.  In the video below, Jean Bartik discusses how she got into the field of computer science and her work on the ENIAC:

More recently, in 2013, Ms. Kleiman worked with film producers to create a short documentary chronicling the work and contributions of these pioneering women.  According to the project’s website, “The Computers is an inspirational story that will change stereotypes and throw open doors. It will help students see that technology careers lie within their grasp, and computing  professionals know that their field’s greatest computing pioneers included women and men!”  The documentary premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival on May 24, 2014, and there was a screening here at Penn in April (so sorry that I missed it!).

Hopefully, in the future, there will be more opportunities to see the documentary in Philadelphia or here at Penn.  Until then, I hope that all of you are as inspired by this amazing story as I am.  More information can be found here:

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