February 15th is designated as ENIAC Day. When switched on in 1945, the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer, or ENIAC, was the world’s first electronic digital computer. Today, we don’t think of a hulking black box with hundreds of connecting cables and over 17,000 vacuum tubes behind the scenes as being a digital thing. Digital things listen to us, talk to us, track us, anticipate us, and keep us connected to the world and everything in it. ENIAC was a digital thing, albeit it was a digital thing that started out working for the US Army to calculate artillery firing tables and then began a career supporting early research into the hydrogen bomb.
The Army would have… In fact, the Army did create the artillery firing tables without ENIAC. The Army or some group of scientists under the direction of the military would have eventually developed the hydrogen bomb. The fact that the military funded the development of the first digital computer is not the issue. Twenty-five or so years later, the military (DARPA) funded the initial research that resulted in the Internet.
As much as I would love to go on and on and on about the history of computers and computer programmers over the past 75 years, that is not what I want to talk about today. Today, I want to mention the names of six women.
“The creation of ENIAC is a remarkable story in its own right, but there’s an extra facet hidden just beneath its surface. While the design of the computer is credited to John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert of the University of Pennsylvania, the programming of the system fell to a remarkable group of women: Fran Bilas, Betty Jennings, Ruth Lichterman, Kay McNulty, Betty Snyder, and Marlyn Wescoff.”
— from Digitaltrends Magazine, March 1, 2019
We can’t celebrate ENIAC day without mentioning those six women.
I don’t know enough about those women to educate you on their achievements. Prior to programming ENIAC, they were calculating those firing tables by hand, aided by adding machines available at the time. They were capable women. Perhaps some of you recall a post on this site about Katherine Johnson. If you don’t remember my post, perhaps you remember the movie “Hidden Figures” about the women behind the early success of the US space program.
In 2013 women represented 26% of the people involved in computer science related careers. That was down from 35% in 1990. As recently as 2018, women only represented 18% of the number people attaining degrees in computer science. I have read about the accomplishments of women in computer technology fields. Throughout my 42-year career in technology and in information sciences I had the pleasure of working with many capable and successful women. When I see the representation of women in this industry shrinking, it causes me to worry, and it makes me sad. We risk too much by not encouraging women to enter these fields and by not making these fields places were women can succeed as easily as similarly qualified men.