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Women’s History Month

All-Star #20: Betty Holberton and the ENIAC Six

Women’s History Month

All-Star #20: Betty Holberton and the ENIAC Six

A governor. The world’s first computer programmers. Lawyers, doctors, writers, artists and activists. Philadelphia’s history is full of incredible, history-making women whose stories, unfortunately, are often all but missing from the history books.

It shouldn’t take a dedicated month—Women’s History Month—to recognize the contributions of these heroines. But in honor of the occasion, we scoured history to find several badass Philly women to celebrate for our Women’s History Month All-Stars.

RELATED: A cadre of visionary women are behind Guild House Hotel—a newly opened boutique hotel that celebrates the history residing in our buildings by giving props to the early feminists who initially occupied the property.

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Betty Holberton and the ENIAC Six

Computer Programmers

Betty Holberton and the ENIAC Six

Computer Programmers

Various Dates

Frances Elizabeth “Betty” Holberton, Jean Jennings Bartik, Marlyn Wescoff Metlzer, Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum, Frances Bilas Spence and Kathleen “Kay” McNulty Mauchly Antonelli were unknown for decades, but in 1946 they were the brilliant women who programmed the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC)—the world’s first general purpose computer, developed at Penn.

Originally a project run by the U.S. Army in Philadelphia, as part of World War II efforts to calculate ballistics trajectories, ENIAC was known as a “Giant Brain”—fitting, considering the giant brains Holberton and the others brought to the top secret work, which they did without programming tools or manuals to guide them.

The women were little known until the 1980s, though Holberton had a long career as a programmer, including as one of the creators of the language Fortran. She won several awards and, along with her ENIAC colleagues, was inducted into the Women in Technology Hall of Fame.


EDUCATION

  • Holberton: University of Pennsylvania
  • Antonelli: Chestnut Hill College
  • Bartik: Northwest Missouri State Teachers College, University of Pennsylvania
  • Spence, Chestnut Hill College
  • Teitelbaum: Hunter College
  • Wescoff: Temple


FINAL WORDS:

“Not only did they program the ENIAC, the first all-electronic, digital computer during WWII without manuals or programming languages, but they dedicated years after the war to making programming easier and more accessible for all of us who followed,” said programmer Kathy Kleiman, who teamed up with documentary filmmakers to make the short film The Computers.


RELATED READING

Photo courtesy Priscilla Holberton / Engineering and Technology History Wiki

 

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