June 30, 2011
What Missouri Woman Was a Computing Pioneer?
While many know Commodore Grace Murry Hopper as a key contributor to COBOL development, many may be surprised that one of our own native Missourians was also very much active at that same time programming the very earliest computer.
Six women, one very large machine, and no operating systems, compilers or other development frameworks. Yet they changed the course of the computing and programming industry. Over sixty years ago, the 1946 introduction of the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) was possible due to the imagination and tireless efforts of these early computing pioneers.
The ENIAC, a tall black machine 80 feet long and 8 feet high, is noted as the first real computer. No programming environment existed. Using only wires and switches, they introduced sorting, instruction sets and classes to this new world. As a result, they transformed ENIAC into the World’s first “stored program” computer.
Betty Jean Jennings Bartik (Jean) was one of those original six women. From a farm in Missouri to a new life in Philadelphia, Jean set out for an adventure of a lifetime. Armed with a major in mathematics, she answered the government’s call for calculating ballistics trajectories (differential equations by hand no less!) and was given the title “Computer”.
A secret opportunity soon arose, and Bartik was introduced to a a new and uncertain technology: 18,000 vacuum tubes, 3,000 switches, hundreds of wires, and a room full of male engineers. And (sound familiar?) no documentation! They taught themselves the ENIAC’s operations from the inside out, studying and learning from electrical and logic diagrams. From this they labored to find methods to intuitively and intelligently input instructions into this huge metal box.
Later, Bartick joined EMCC (Eckert-Mauchly Computer Company) and was joined by another important pioneering woman, Grace Murray Hopper. The result of that venture introduced the world’s first commercial computer, UNIVAC 1.
The rest is history.. or so you might think. Their stories went untold for many years. While the ENIAC engineers were introduced to the world (14 February 1946), the pioneering women who made it run were never mentioned until nearly forty years later.
Jean Bartik was the last of the ENIAC six pioneering women to survive and was lost just this year, 23 March 2011. Check out the Computing Museum at Northwest Missouri State University and the Google Blog Spot for a fun and interactive perspective from this entertaining and pioneering woman.