Women Who Made Computers a Key to Success in WWII

During World War II, the calculation of ballistic trajectories was critical to defeating the enemy. The calculation of these trajectories was complicated by weather conditions and other factors, making hand calculations very difficult. The Electronic Numeric Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) was developed as an electronic means of calculating these trajectories. ENIAC was the first general-purpose computer.

In order for ENIAC to be effective, it needed to be programmed. Six women were hired to program the computer. The women were Betty Holberton, Jean Bartik, Ruth Teitelbaum, Kathleen Antonelli, Maryln Meltzer, and Frances Spence. They were hired because they had prior experience being human computers of trajectories.

At first, the programmers were not allowed to see the ENIAC because they lacked a security clearance. They had to work from technical specs. The designers of the ENIAC thought the programming task would be a simple task. In fact, the programming was just as complex as the design. The women were also given no space to work, and they ended up having to find the space wherever they could.

The programming effort became the key to the success of the war effort including the determination of the trajectories of the atomic bombs that ended the war with Japan.

When the ENIAC was demonstrated to the public in 1946, the women who made the ENIAC a reality were given little recognition. With the return of men to the U.S. after the war, women were often displaced from their roles in the computer industry. Some of the original six women working on the ENIAC remained active in advancing computing technology. Others chose to start families.

Circumstances often create opportunities for hidden heroes. World War II created a need, and talented women fulfilled that need in the early days of computing. While women more than proved themselves, it’s unfortunate that the role of women in computing diminished after the urgency of war times was over.

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“If I am remembered at all, I would like to be remembered as my family story teller.” – Kay Antonelli (one of the six ENIAC programmers down-playing her role in the development of the ENIAC)

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