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The computers that breathed life into ENIAC

The computers that breathed life into ENIAC


The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, better known as the ENIAC, became the world’s first general purpose programmable electronic computer when it was completed in 1945. creating a team of six women. For decades, these women were virtually unknown, except for unidentified figures in ENIAC photographs. But as a student, Katie Kleiman, who later helped found ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), began to figure out who they were. This weekend at the Vintage Computer Festival East in Wall, New Jersey, Kleiman will be showing his short documentary. Computersabout programmers. In anticipation of her conversation, IEEE Spectrum spoke with Kleiman about ENIAC women and her passion for them.

How did these women become central figures in the history of computing?

Kathy Kleiman: During World War II, the Army needed people to manually calculate ballistic trajectories or artillery fire tables. And there were not enough male mathematicians. The Army moved the project from rural Maryland to Philadelphia and went looking for female math students in Philadelphia, which has a very large co-ed university and college schools and girls’ schools.

They later traveled the country looking for female mathematicians to attend the Morse School of Electrical Engineering, where they hosted the project and manually calculated ballistic trajectories using mechanical desktop calculators. But it took 30 to 40 hours to calculate one trajectory for one set of weather conditions for one gun and one projectile, and the army needed hundreds of trajectories per firing table.

So, in the dark days of the war, in early 1943, when the end of the war was in sight, they agreed to fund the experiment of a far-sighted guy who at that time also happened to be at Moore’s school. His name was Dr. John Mauchly. He was partnered with Presper Eckert, then 23 years old, a young engineering graduate. They were yin and yang, a great combination. With army funds, they built this machine that was not supposed to work – 18,000 vacuum tubes were never supposed to work together. But they did it, the car is 8 feet high and 80 feet long.

But when they’re almost done, they’re like, “Wait a second.” Part of the army contract was the delivery of a working ballistic trajectory calculated by the machine. So, a mathematician and army lieutenant at a test site named Herman Goldstein selects six of the 80-100 women who calculated the trajectories. They are [Kathleen Antonelli, Jean Bartik, Betty Holberton, Marlyn Meltzer, Frances Spence, and Ruth Teitelbaum] they are given electrical diagrams and block diagrams and challenged to figure it out so they can solve the ballistic trajectory equation.

The women don’t have secure access to even see a real computer, but they figure it out by doing what is now called direct programming. There’s looping, there’s conditional logic, and the women collectively mastered it all and made it perform the ballistic trajectory calculation that eventually became the highlight of the February 6, 1946 demo day when ENIAC was introduced.

Why did you start studying their history?

Kleiman: I was at Harvard. I was sort of a social theorist. I studied computer science in my first class in college because I was already a programmer due to the Western Electric program when I was in high school. I also noticed that as the computer class levels got higher, the number of women decreased. And I knew about Ada Lovelace. I knew about Grace Hopper. Ada Lovelace was in the 19th century, then Grace Hopper in the 20th century. And one woman thriving on computing for a century didn’t make me feel warm and fluffy, so I went looking for more.

I found photos of ENIAC taken before the demo day, which were given to the press and published all over the country. These pictures are beautiful black and white pictures, and they show men and women; some just have women! But while the names of some men, in particular Eckert and Mauchly, are listed in the signatures, the names of women are not in the signatures. I wanted to know who they are. At the time, some computer historians told me they were models, but to me they didn’t look like models. I tracked them down and they weren’t models; they were programmers.

You will be screening your documentary at VCF East featuring interviews with four programmers before they passed away, but this year you will also be releasing a book called Polygon?

Kleiman: The documentary raised as many questions as it answered. So I was sort of coaxed into telling the rest of the story, to sit down and talk about the incredible work of not only the ENIAC programmers, but the millions of women behind the lines during World War II. It turned out that this is not the story that we know very well. I always knew that women go to factories, to farms. I didn’t realize until I sat down in front of the newspapers of the period and saw advertisements that women with science and technology backgrounds were in huge demand. If you have the interest, ability, and some background, these articles have made it clear that they will teach you everything else, not just for the military, but for industry as well. It was a whole part of the story that I’ve never heard that women also filled those gaps in science, technology and engineering.

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