In 1946 six brilliant young women programmed the world’s first all-digital, programmable computer, the ENIAC, a project run by the U.S. Army in Philadelphia. The ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) was the clunky, incredibly buggy predecessor to the general purpose computers in everyone’s lives today. It was 1,000 times faster than similar electromechanical machines and 2,400 times faster than a human at calculating artillery trajectories.
The team included Jean Jennings, Marlyn Wescoff, Ruth Lichterman, Betty Snyder, Frances Bilas, and Kay McNulty. These women were very much in a sink-or-swim situation. After six weeks of training at an Army base, they were given the blueprints to the ENIAC and the wiring diagrams for all of the panels. They were told to “figure out how the machine works and then figure out how to program it.”
ENIAC became a legend and its inventors became famous. The story of its programmers, who created the first software application and became the first teachers of modern programming, was never told. This group of women paved the path for modern computer science and yet when the ENIAC was unveiled to the press and the public, the women were never introduced; they remained invisible. At the time, the emphasis was on the inventors and the hardware.
The six women represented a broad range of perspectives and backgrounds. Jean Jennings recalled their diversity in an interview:
“We had a wonderful time with each other, mainly because none of us had ever been in close contact with anyone from one of the others’ religions. We had some great arguments about religious truths and beliefs. Despite our differences, or perhaps because of them, we really liked one another.”
In addition to working side by side, these women spent a great deal of their personal lives together. When programming, they often worked in pairs. Several of the friendships between the women of the ENIAC lasted a lifetime.
General sentiments accrued from articles at Atomic Object & ENIAC Programmers Project.