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Computer Confidence for Women. By Rachel K. Adelson

Programmed to Succeed: Betty Holberton

The ENIAC – the world’s first electronic computer – weighed 30 tons, filled a 30-by-50-foot room, and was programmed by women. Come again? It’s true. Although our heads are filled with images of computing as a man’s world, and my history books are filled with pictures of men as the field’s creative geniuses, during World War II, Rosie the Riveter was joined in non-traditional labor by Betty the Programmer – and also Jean, Marlyn, Ruth, Kay and Frances. Together, these six women went where no one – woman or man – had gone before, using hardware and human logic to tell a vast machine just what to do.

In March, I interviewed two of these pioneers for a cable TV program called, "On the Go with the AAUW," which will air on Fairfax Cable later this year. [The AAUW is the American Association of University Women.] Betty Snyder Holberton and Jean Bartik were attending a meeting of the Association of Women in Computing, a national group that in Arlington, Va. presented Holberton with the 1997 Augusta Ada Lovelace* Award, its highest award for excellence. Because Holberton’s story speaks volumes about women in computing, I thought I’d relate it this month.

Betty Snyder, born during World War I, was very good in math. Even so, on her first day at the University of Pennsylvania, her math professor said she should stay home raising children. Instead, she studied journalism because its curriculum let her go far afield. It was also one of the few majors open to women. A quirk of history opened doors for Betty when, in World War II, the U.S. government sought help from women, given that the men were off fighting and the work viewed (perhaps because women did it) as clerical. "Computors," who were mostly women, performed the massive and tedious computations that guided ballistics trajectories. In other words, they used their mathematical prowess to help the army make its mark on Axis powers.

Even with math whizzes working the numbers, the war effort demanded more speed. By early 1946, Snyder, along with Jean (Jennings) Bartik, Marlyn (Wescoff) Meltzer, Ruth (Lichterman) Teitelbaum, Kay (McNulty) Antonelli, and Frances (Bilas) Spence, all classed by the U.S. government as "subprofessionals," figured out how to "program" the freshly unveiled ENIAC to do the job. At first they worked only from wiring diagrams, viewed as security risks and kept from the computer room. Once admitted, they sometimes had to straighten up the mess that engineers left overnight (some things never change).

Despite the obstacles, the women succeeded; even the test run was flawless. Use of the ENIAC cut calculation time from about 20 hours down to 30 seconds – about half the time of a projectile’s flight. After the demonstration, said The Wall Street Journal last year, "the men went out for a celebratory dinner. The programmers went home."

I’m not sure I could understand how the ENIAC worked, let alone explain it to you. What I do know is this: Holberton and her colleagues figured out how to make it happen with a machine that could fill a small ballroom, in a world without Windows, keyboards or CD-ROMs. Reported The Wall Street Journal, "Running the ENIAC required setting dozens of dials and plugging a ganglia of heavy black cables into the face of the machine, a different configuration for every problem."

In short, it was just yards and yards of intricately linked on-off switches, about 18,000 vacuum tubes, and them. Yet, in textbooks, these brainy women are merely lumped in a nameless group, a footnote in the shadow of the equally brilliant and fully credited men who created the machine itself.

Live Wire is vexed. Even the stodgy Wall Street Journal reported that the first programmers’ legacy "is confined mainly to Movietone footage and sepia photos – women standing alongside the machine, as if modeling a Frigidaire." Why is that? In part, hardware until recently stole the thunder in computing. Also in part, three of the women married ENIAC engineers, "making them," as the Journal pointed out, "wives first in the eyes of the history makers."

But the feisty members of the First Programmers’ Club didn’t let that stop them. Betty Snyder Holberton enjoyed an extremely influential career – she helped develop the UNIVAC (the first commercially available computer), and worked at Remington Rand, the Applied Mathematics Laboratory, the David Taylor Model Basin, and the National Bureau of Standards. Holberton shaped UNIVAC hardware and was responsible for much of the first model’s software, which the U.S. Census bureau used to process 1950 data. Her work pointed the way for Admiral Grace Murray Hopper to develop the earliest compiler – a way of translating programming commands from the high-level languages we use to instructions that machines can understand. Hopper, by the way, described Holberton as being the best programmer she had ever known.

Holberton also helped to design and standardize the COBOL and FORTRAN languages, which may sound Greek to you but actually represent two critically important programming languages. Her work at the standards bureau helped to ensure that computers could communicate with one another worldwide, regardless of any one manufacturer’s dictates.

You can visit the retired ENIAC at the Smithsonian. Betty Holberton and Jean Bartik, however, are still going strong – and so is their legacy. In our interviews, these outspoken women stressed the importance of the life of the mind. Their confidence in their intellect, in the face of discouraging discrimination, helped them to succeed and to put their stamp on the information age. At a time when we worry more than ever about how girls fare in math and computing, we can tell them the story of the first programmers, valuable models of spirit, determination and drive.

* Lovelace, the daughter of George, Lord Byron, was a skilled mathematician who in the first half of the 19th century developed the basic ideas of programming.

Note: The author interviewed Holberton on camera, in an AAUW "Women on the Go" episode aired on Fairfax Cable, Fairfax VA in October 1997.

Copyright 1997 Rachel K. Adelson

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Released on the web June 10, 1998