Happy ENIAC Day!

Not how I modified programs, but whatever it took.

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.

69 comments

  1. Thank you, Dan, for this post. Though I didn’t know of ENIAC, I knew of the brilliant women who created the software and saw the movie, “Hidden Figures” – powerful! It’s always stunning how we leave important details out of our proclaimed histories. Stay warm and keep the photos coming. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s my pleasure to shine a little light on these six women, Gwen. They defined a career that would interest and sustain me for over 40 years. There are/were many great women in this industry.

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    • It wasn’t your fault. She graduated from WVU, before I was born, but I never heard of her while I was in school there. It wasn’t until 40 years later when the Alumni magazine did an article on her. We don’t celebrate the accomplishments of these women nearly enough.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Women in the workplace, esp in STEM fields? I wholeheartedly endorse it. In my career sales job, I met wonderful women as purchasing agents, production control agents, quality control experts and engineers in design and manufacturing. Of course they should be in equal footing with men. Enjoyed the photos and comments about ENIAC and your weather. Big snows coming to western NY tonight. Have a great day!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I circle back to this theme every now and then. We don’t seem to be making any headway in encouraging women to enter these fields in greater numbers. Stay safe in the weather coming your way.

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  3. I’ve seen Hidden Figures more than once and it’s better each time I watch it. What a disgrace the way women were “used” in the workplace then, and still are, although less so, today.

    Your post brings to mind a movie from the late 50’s called Desk Set, starring Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Desk Set is centered around a group of female researchers whose job it is to QUICKLY research any question that comes in over the phone. The company wants to modernize, so Tracy enters with his invention, a ginormous computer named EMEREK that he claims can come up with the answers faster and is the ultimate information source. And the fun begins.

    This movie also depicts how women received no recognition for their abilities and accomplishments, but in a subtle way. Remember, this movie is fiction!

    I can’t help but wonder if the writer(s) ever conceived that their fictional computer would become Google!

    Great gallery. You need to find bigger peanuts for those little guys!

    Cold and gray here. Just waiting for the snow/ice to begin. Aaarrgghhhh!! I hope no one in the path of these approaching storms loses power. Good luck in your area. Be safe, warm and dry.
    Ginger

    Liked by 1 person

    • We still don’t do a very good job of recognizing women in that industry, Ginger. Truth be told, we don’t recognize anyone in that industry, and most of the guys I knew seem to like it that way. I once told my boss, when he commented about the lack of social skills in my department, “these are people who are happier working with machines than people.” The sad thing is that schools still don’t do a good job of encouraging girls to think about STEM careers.

      I remember TV shows and movies back in the 60s and 70s where computers were always piping out the answers – usually a sorted IBM card – lickety-split. The truth is those early computers were no match for humans at retrieving information because the information hadn’t been gathered. That’s Google’s strength, they gathered everything.

      I have to run out and get a few things (not storm shopping, but normal Monday shopping) and then put my car in the garage until this mess is over.

      Take care – stay safe.

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  4. Hi Dan – great to read about ENIAC Day … and definitely worth celebrating … many women have been forgotten about – essential to our lives today – Ada Lovelace was Byron’s daughter and accepted as being the first person to recognise the benefits of computers and thus programmers (early 1800s) … not quite airbrushed into obscurity; people forget that Rosalind Franklin was really the first person to understand the sequencing of DNA – again not quite airbrushed into obscurity.

    So pleased Maddie, Smokey et al will never be airbrushed into obscurity here in the No Facilities Den! Warming up I’m pleased to say – stay safe -Hilary

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    • Ads Lovelace is a personal hero. I also have women who I remember as being heroes along the path of my career. It is sad when we see them “airbrushed” (I like that term) into obscurity. There were so many achievements by women in STEM careers (long before the acronym).

      Stay safe, Hilary.

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  5. Thank you Maddie. Fellow Redhead stick together. It always amazes me how the people who do the actual work but behind the scenes, never get the credit they are due. Like everybody sees the Peacock but no one sees the Peahen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Without some research by a woman in the industry, the names of these six women would have been lost forever. It’s sad. Some say they weren’t really programmers, they were called operators, but they actually knew how to do the work the computer was doing. We cast a plaque to recognize the men who designed the machine, I think we could have at least mentioned the women who made it work.

      Maddie is always on the lookout for you ;-)

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  6. Right off the bat, I thought of two movies related to computers: The Imitation Game and Hidden Figures. I’m always glad to see new technology, but the latter film was an inspiration to young girls who are willing and sble to change the world. Thanks for the history lesson, Dan. I hope you celebrate with a beer, a nap and a few keystrokes on the computer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think a beer will be in order later today, Mary. If I were younger, I’d be tempted to toast each one of these women ;-) The profession needs the unique insights women bring to every endeavor. In the language of logic, it’s not an OR thing, it’s an AND.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. The little squirrel trying to get under the gate…so cute. Gained a few pounds, have we? Interesting that we had one woman in our IT Department. For some reason, my supervisor who was also a woman, never liked to log a service problem with her. She preferred the men. I think there was a bit of jealousy going on there.

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  8. Happy ENIAC day Dan. Your story got me wondering. I knew punch cards were developed to control weaving machines. And I had seen some displays how they were used at the museum at Deerfield village. While I figured the ENIAC used card readers I did not know what company’s card reader they used. And I am still not sure who’s card reader it was. However it turns out IBM was big in the card reader field back in 1928 way before they got into computers. And I should not be surprised because it took a long time for card readers to go away. They were still in use into the 1980s. And I will leave that mess right there. Here is to the ladies that made that cumbersome piece of technology work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad I got the gears turning, John. ENIAC did use an IBM card reader for input and an IBM card punch for output. It also used punch cards as a form of memory, since it had no permanent memory to work with. I began my programming career at Burroughs, using cards and later “card image” files stored on tape. When I was in college, my undergraduate research project spanned two card boxes. About 1 1/4 box were lines of program code and the rest was functions and subroutines I would read in on demand.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It is interesting what capacities existed and where. It would no doubt confuse some people to hear cards were an external storage media. While I never got too close to them I remember when disk storage units were the size of a washing machine. And the disk stacks were removable.

        Liked by 1 person

        • The first thing I did after keypunching my data cards was to duplicate them. I ran my program at least once a day, and there was a lot of data. There were reader accidents that would result in the loss of data. Only graduate CS majors were allowed Fisk space back then.

          Liked by 1 person

  9. I agree Dan. It’s sad and that’s all I will say because I have so much more in my mind regarding women’s guidance, recognition and opportunities in all fields where they might contribute. It occurs to me that if the black and white image wasn’t there, one could still date the original six by the fact that there were two Bettys in that small group. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • The fact that they were overlooked and undervalued isn’t a bit of history that we’re ashamed of. It’s so often the way things remain in a technology-related workplace. I’ve seen it first hand. I’m no champion of women in the workplace, but I did try to treat my female coworkers fairly. Unfortunately, I was often overruled and sometimes by other women. The downward trend of women in these fields is bad for everyone.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. One aspect of the past that is constantly amazing is what people achieved without applying the modern-day gadgets and software. Some buildings that were built with computer-aided designs are still awesome to look at, standing strong for their good, and will last longer. When I heard of the women portrayed in Hidden Figures who were calculating crazy Calculus barehand, I felt a deep sense of respect for them. I love Math, but there are some solutions I wish I could arrive at much faster. Somebody posted on Twitter that “imagine the internet was built without the internet” or something like that. Implying our current incapacity to do or know anything without visiting the internet. I think that with or without technology, people are amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was amazed to find the difficulty we’re having with planning a return trip to the moon. One of the issues is how hard it will be to design a rocket that can function as well as the Saturn-5 did. We designed that rocket with slide-rules and the women plotted the course by hand! I once wrote a blog post on a technology blog that I had bemoaning the fact that we had gotten to a point that it was almost impossible to fix a computer without a computer and an internet connection. I remember the days when we could open the case, diagnose a problem, replace a card, replace memory, replace a drive, add a drive, etc.

      People are amazing, but many refuse to believe that about themselves. When I was building a bookshelf last summer, I had people tell me all the places I could buy a bookshelf.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Great post, Dan. I love reading about our early steps into technology. As a woman who was in this field for years, I was definitely a minority. At one time when I worked for the Army, women were closer to 50% of the staff in comparison to 25-30% at other places. I was always accepted and treated fairly by my peers and my management. (I was a big fan of Grace Hopper.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Grace Hopper’s insight certainly saved all of us programmers a ton of work. Compiling programs down to machine language instead of writing in machine language was a game changing concept. Despite the fact that she helped invent COBOL, I hold her in high regard. I worked with such a small number of women over the years, and the reasons why were difficult to understand. It was one thing in the 70s, but in the 80s, 90s and the beginning of this century, to find that the treatment of women in the technology workplace hadn’t changed was disappointing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • COBOL was never a favorite of mine, but I will let it slide considering her other contributions. I think so was fortunate when I got into tech. My first boss was a strong willed but fair woman and she had the respect of everyone that worked for her. I think that made a big difference.

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        • I worked with one such department head. She was my bosses peer, but we worked closely with her department. She came in at a disadvantage but earned everyone’s trust and respect in pretty short order.

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  12. Thank you for this post! It would seem that by now, women would have fully taken their place in technology industries. I imagine it starts early with education and encouragement. It also would be fabulous if more female role models (like these women) were recognized… both for females and males to see.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Unfortunately, the trend is going the wrong way. While I had female applicants for network security and administration, I never had any for programming positions after 1992.

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  13. I wonder why the fall-off? You consider that more women than men get college degrees, you’d think the number of women in STEM disciplines (including medicine) would keep pace, especially with efforts to increase the number.

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  14. That’s some really great history and information you shared today. I hope more women get into these fields. I suppose it starts with maths…not my strong suit at all. I think we need to be better at teaching math myself I often find it overwhelming.

    Stay warm! It sure looks pretty though.

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  15. A most interesting post, Dan. My view, for what its worth, is that when women have freedom of career choice, after a period of pushing hard for equality, they realise that total work equality is difficult to achieve if you have a family and a choice has to be made. Many, like me, chose to aim lower at work and achieve a better life work balance.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Wonderful post, Dan. My Microsoft Edge popped up Today in History yesterday and I read the size of the room and the size of the computer to my husband. Very interesting. When I was working, I had to get more education to get promoted to a position compared to male counterpart, even though the pay for the position was the same for both male and female. But looking at the banks, managers are always male. In small banks, manager is the only male and everyone else is female! My friend’s daughter went to an engineer school recruitment. Many schools wanted to recruit her because not too many females go into engineering. But after she graduated, she didn’t have the same opportunities as the male counterpart for the positions. She got the first job at Disneyland because the human resources person is a friend of the family.

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  17. I love the ‘behind the scenes’ stories, Dan. Three cheers (oops, make that six) for the six women. Few women broke out of the choices of teacher, nurse, or secretary that was the norm for college bound women. The vast majority did not even go to college.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. My daughters are not at all interested in computer sciences. They don’t have girl friends who are, either. Gobs of young women headed to STEM but not computer science. The girls have unkind opinions about the young men who study computers. There is a notable number of computer guys who are unbearably arrogant. My own experiences match their opinion. My FIL, my son, and my favorite nephew are all computer guys and I don’t see them working, I can only hope.
    I am particularly astounded by what kids can do and had not considered gender. I’m surprised and sad that more women aren’t doing it and appreciate your shout-out to the ones who made the news.

    Liked by 1 person

    • When my wife edited this post, she said “maybe the reason women don’t go into this field is because of the men that are in it.” I managed staff, mostly men, in this field for decades. They exhibit every problem you can imagine. My reason for trying to encourage women to enter the field is because they bring a unique insight into the problems that technology will be used to solve as we move forward. STEM and computer science will eventually be so intertwined, that women in STEM careers will be increasingly dependent on those computer scientists they don’t want to sit next to during lunch.

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      • “My reason for trying to encourage women to enter the field is because they bring a unique insight into the problems that technology will be used to solve as we move forward.” Well said. Moo agrees, and added earlier that one of the friendlets is going into astrophysics, and she’s hoping when she gets to college, there’ll be a lot more girl rocket geeks.

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