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October 6, 2014 AT 4:00 am

Walter Isaacson on the women of ENIAC #WomenInSTEM

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Fortune has a great post about revolutionary computing machine ENIAC and the women who programmed it. The piece includes an excerpt from Walter Isaacson’s new book The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.

As ENIAC was being constructed at Penn in 1945, it was thought that it would perform a specific set of calculations over and over, such as determining a missile’s trajectory using different variables. But the end of the war meant that the machine was needed for many other types of calculations—sonic waves, weather patterns, and the explosive power of atom bombs—that would require it to be reprogrammed often.

This entailed switching around by hand ENIAC’s rat’s nest of cables and resetting its switches. At first the programming seemed to be a routine, perhaps even menial task, which may have been why it was relegated to women, who back then were not encouraged to become engineers. But what the women of ENIAC soon showed, and the men later came to understand, was that the programming of a computer could be just as significant as the design of its hardware.

The tale of Jean Jennings is illustrative of the early women computer programmers. She was born on a farm on the outskirts of Alanthus Grove, Mo. (pop. 104), into a family that had almost no money and deeply valued education. Her father taught in a one-room schoolhouse, where Jean became the star pitcher and lone girl on the softball team. Her mother, though she had dropped out of school in eighth grade, helped tutor algebra and geometry. Jean was the sixth of seven children, all of whom went to college. She attended Northwest Missouri State Teachers College in Maryville, where the tuition was $76 per year. She started out majoring in journalism, but she hated her adviser so switched to math, which she loved.

When she finished in January 1945, her calculus teacher showed her a flier soliciting women mathematicians to work at the University of Pennsylvania, where women were working as “computers”—humans who performed routinized math tasks—mainly calculating artillery trajectory tables for the Army. As one of the ads put it:

Wanted: Women With Degrees in Mathematics…Women are being offered scientific and engineering jobs where formerly men were preferred. Now is the time to consider your job in science and engineering…You will find that the slogan there as elsewhere is WOMEN WANTED!

Jennings, who had never been out of Missouri, applied. When she received a telegram of acceptance, she boarded the midnight Wabash train heading east and arrived at Penn 40 hours later. “Needless to say, they were shocked that I had gotten there so quickly,” she recalled.

When Jennings showed up in March 1945, at age 20, there were approximately 70 women at Penn working on desktop adding machines and scribbling numbers on huge sheets of paper. Adele Goldstine, a mathematician who was married to the Army’s liaison with the ENIAC team, was in charge of recruiting and training. “I’ll never forget the first time I saw Adele,” Jennings said. “She ambled into class with a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth, walked over to a table, threw one leg over its corner, and began to lecture in her slightly cleaned up Brooklyn accent.” For Jennings, who had grown up as a spirited tomboy bristling at the countless instances of sexism she faced, it was a transforming experience. “I knew I was a long way from Maryville, where women had to sneak down to the greenhouse to grab a smoke.”

A few months after she arrived, a memo was circulated among the women about six job openings to work on the mysterious machine that was behind locked doors on the first floor of Penn’s Moore School of Engineering. “I had no idea what the job was or what the ENIAC was,” Jennings recalled. “All I knew was that I might be getting in on the ground floor of something new, and I believed I could learn and do anything as well as anyone else.” She also was looking to do something more exciting than calculating trajectories.

When she got to the meeting, Herman Goldstine, Adele’s husband, asked her what she knew about electricity. “I said that I had had a course in physics and knew that E equaled IR,” she recalled, referring to Ohm’s law. “No, no,” Goldstine replied, “I don’t care about that, but are you afraid of it?” The job involved plugging in wires and throwing a lot of switches, he explained. She said that she wasn’t afraid. While she was being interviewed, Adele Goldstine came in, looked at her, and nodded. Jennings was selected.

The full piece is definitely worth a read. Check it out here.

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