The ENIAC Programmers: how women invented modern programming and were then written out of the history books

Kathy Kleiman, founder of the ENIAC Programmers Project, writes about the buried history of the pivotal role played by women in the creation of modern computing, a history that is generally recounted as consisting of men making heroic technical and intellectual leaps while women did some mostly simple, mechanical work around the periphery.

Kleiman summarizes her twenty years of research into the programmers of the ENIAC — the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, the first modern computer — whose first programmers were six women: Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Jean Jennings Bartik, Betty Snyder Holberton, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum and Frances Bilas Spence.

The ENIAC programmers had to invent programming as we know it, working without programming codes (these were invented a few years later for UNIVAC by Betty Holberton): they "broke down the differential calculus ballistics trajectory program" into small steps the computer could handle, then literally wired together the program by affixing cables and flicking the machine's 3,000 switches in the correct sequences. To capture it all, they created meticulous flowcharts that described the program's workings.

The women stayed on the ENIAC project after the war because "no solider returning home from the battlefield could program ENIAC," and went on to train the next generation of ENIAC programmers, also creating modern computer science education; they also went on to create the first computer instruction codes.

Kleiman's scholarship is an important rebuttal to the sexist, revisionist history of early computer science, like Nathan Ensmenger's odious 2010 book "The Computer Boys Take Over," which characterized the ENIAC women as "glorified clerical workers" and insisted that the women were only given the job because it was perceived as "low priority" (in reality, the women were the cream of the US Army's Ballistics Research Labs, recruited from math programs at top universities). The slander continues, with the ENIAC women mischaracterized as "low on the intellectual and professional status hierarchy."

Keilman says that the confusion may stem from the Army classifying the women as "subprofessional," and notes that it was common for sensitive intelligence jobs to have misleading titles — cryptographers were classed as "secretaries" and "clerks" in a bid to disguise the work they did from hostile spies.

The negative language of the critique of the ENIAC Programmers, as is the book's cover art, a picture of a lone white man standing before a huge mainframe computer. Overall, the book sends a clear message: girls do not look to computer science for education or jobs.

We can do better. I talk to groups of young technologists around the world and share the story of the ENIAC Team – women and men who worked together and changed the world. The audiences light up. Knowing pioneers of computing and programming came from different races and backgrounds is exciting and inspiring. Our computing history is rich and inclusive – so why not share it? In the future, I hope we will and thank Princeton for the times we shared my documentary, The Computers.The discussions afterwards were priceless!

Misunderstandings of the Past [Kathryn Kleiman/Freedom to Tinker]