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A Pioneer Woman

Jean Jennings Bartik

Courtesy of The Computer History Museum

Jean Jennings Bartik came from a long line of teachers and her most supportive college professor encouraged her to become a teacher, but when she graduated as the only math major from her war-depleted college in 1945, she had no interest in a classroom career. Raised on a farm two miles outside tiny Alanthus Grove, MO, she yearned for travel and excitement. Bartik responded to a government ad for women math majors and only a few hours after being accepted, she was on an east-bound train to faraway Philadelphia, PA.

The government job turned out to be for a human "computer" and involved laboriously calculating artillery projectile trajectories that soldiers used to aim new Army guns. Bartik loved city life, but the work itself was tedious and repetitive. So, she jumped at the opportunity to move, sight unseen, to a secret government project. Thus, the Missouri farm girl found her dream job as one of the world's first computer programmers, joining a team of six women who were charged with figuring how to program the world's first general-purpose, electronic, and digital computer, the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer (ENIAC), which was designed to calculate artillery trajectories 1,000 times faster than a human computer.

In recognition of her pioneering work, Bartik recently received a 2008 Fellows Award from the Computer History Museum and spent an evening at the Mountain View, CA, museum regaling an audience with stories about her professional life.

There were no manuals or instruction guides for programming the ENIAC, which included 17,468 vacuum tubes, occupied more than 680 square feet, and weighed 30 tons. Instead, Bartik and her five female colleagues—Kay McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Betty Snyder Holberton, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Frances Bilas Spence, and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum—pored over its logical and electrical block diagrams and discussed design details with the male engineers and physicists who had created them. Ultimately, the women figured out how to set ENIAC's 3,000 switches and hundreds of connection cables so calculations would progress correctly through the complex machine.

Bartik claimed that she and her colleagues excelled at their jobs because, unlike many of the visionaries involved in the ENIAC project, the women were good "finishers"; they would not stop until all the loose ends were nailed down.

Although the women were classified by the Army as "sub-professional," working for ENIAC's inventors, John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert of the University of Pennsylvania, was like being in a "technical Camelot," Bartik said. While as intense as any present-day startup, the work environment was inspiring and respectful of everyone's contribution, regardless of gender or race. Unfortunately, this was not true elsewhere, and the women's contributions were not recognized for decades.

Only three of the women programmers—Antonelli, Bartik, and Holberton—continued to work in the computing industry after ENIAC. In 1947, Bartik created and led the team that converted ENIAC into a stored program computer and, at the Eckert & Mauchly Corp., played a key role in several aspects of the UNIVAC 1, the first commercial computer. (Holberton died in 2001; Antonelli died in 2006.)

Bartik said the working conditions turned into "a job from hell" after Remington Rand bought the financially troubled Eckert & Mauchly Corp. in 1950, and she decided to concentrate on family life and spent the next 16 years raising her three children.

When Bartik returned to the computer industry in the mid-1960s, mini-computers were very popular, and she worked for a number of companies as an analyst, editor, and in customer support. Never one to shade the truth as she saw it, Bartik sometimes found herself at odds with managers and marketers, but every so often she'd smile when she recognized a "new" technology as something she'd discussed years earlier with the ENIAC pioneers.

The contributions of Bartik and the women ENIAC programmers might never be known today had not a Harvard student, Kathryn Kleiman, noticed a passing mention of them in a computer history autobiography in 1986 while researching a paper on women in computing. Now a lawyer, Kleiman has produced 20 hours of broadcast-quality, oral-history interviews and, with a grant from ACM's SIG Discretionary Fund, created an eight-minute trailer for a full-length documentary on the ENIAC programmers.

After reflecting on the ups and downs of her career, Bartik offered a positive, personal message for those entering today's computer industry: "There will always be people thinking outside the box—thank goodness! Enjoy every moment you have. You're as happy as you choose to be. So I choose to be happy."

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Michael Ross writes about science and technology from San Jose, CA.

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