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Philadelphia Women’s History Month All-Stars

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

Philadelphia Women’s History Month All-Stars

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

Scientists. Activists. Lawyers. Artists. The first computer programmers.

The history books may have neglected some of the incredible Philly women who changed the world over the last 200-plus years—but we have not.

While it shouldn’t take a national observance to put women on our radar, this is one holiday we’re happy to play along with: Every weekday during Women’s History Month, we’re highlighting a local woman whose legacy deserves celebrating—and who continues to inspire us.

Find the full list below—and also check out the incredible women we included in our Black History Month All-Stars roundup—like Marian Anderson, Sadie Alexander and Caroline Still Anderson.

20

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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