Q: What Do You Call a WWII Computer?
- 25 April 2012 by laila 6 Comments
A: A Woman
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, American women with mathematical aptitudes were hired by the US military to test the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer — an earlier machine created John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert Jr. of Penn State University. The women were acually referred to as “computers” and they spent their days calculating ballistics trajectories and other top secret projects to help the war effort. The machine, referred to as ENIAC, was a 30-lb maching the women worked on creating the first sort routines, software applications and instruction set. They went on to set up classes in programming, setting the foundation for modern software.
The ENIAC was introduced to the public on February 14, 1946, making headlines across the country. When the women who had programmed the machine demonstrated it to the military, they were overlooked all together for their contributions. Later, the military brass admitted they thought the women were hired models instead of the actual programmers.
Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII
Film-maker LeAnn Erickson released a documentary in 2010 called Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII exploring the story of these women. The story is not only one about computers and sexism, but also involves the ethical questions about the outcomes of the work.
Another huge computer developed during WWII at the MSEE was the ENIAC. Women who had successfully displayed their skills in using the differential analyzer were now recruited to parlay their expertise skills as programmers for this new electronic computer. Although the machine had been developed by male project engineers, it was the women who were required to study locked diagrams, and run test after test of trajectory calculations. Although the ENIAC would not play a role in World War II, it would become infamous for other reasons such as solving calculations for the first hydrogen bomb, and becoming the forefather to usher in the new computer age.
There is little doubt that without the assistance of these female human computers, the war might have been lost. These women were cognizant of war casualties, and this led some to question their morals and ethics. But without their calculating expertise, the war might have had a different outcome. These women knew they had an obligation to serve their country while their men fought “over there.” –Reviewed by Monique Threatt, Indiana University, Herman B Wells Library, Bloomington, IN
What Happened Next?
“All six women contributed to the programming the ENIAC. Many of these pioneer programmers went on to develop innovative tools for future software engineers and to teach others early programming techniques.
Marlyn Meltzer and Ruth Teitelbaum were a special team of ENIAC programmers. As “Computers” for the Army, they calculated ballistics trajectory equations painstakingly using desktop calculators, an analog technology of the time. Chosen to be ENIAC programmers, they taught themselves and others certain functions of the ENIAC and helped prepare the ballistics program. After the war, Ruth relocated with the ENIAC to Aberdeen, Maryland, where she taught the next generation of ENIAC programmers how to use the unique new computing tool.
Frances Spence and Kathleen Antonelli were a second ENIAC team. Both mathematics majors in the class of 1942 of Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, they responded to the Army’s call for mathematicians and were assigned to operate the Differential Analyzer, a huge analog machine of which there were only a few in the world. Fran and Kay led the teams of women who used this machine to calculate the ballistics equations. After the war, both Fran and Kay continued with the ENIAC to program equations for some of the world’s foremost mathematicians. Kay married Dr. John Mauchly who, together with J. Presper Eckert, invented the ENIAC and UNIVAC computers, and Kay worked with John on program designs and techniques for many years.
The third ENIAC programming team was comprised of Jean Bartik and Betty Holberton. As ENIAC programmers, they took on the challenging task of learning the Master Programmer that directed the performance of all program sequences of the ENIAC. They led the entire group in programming the ballistics trajectory for the February 14, 1946 demonstration, but that was only the beginning.
After the War, Jean Bartik worked on the team that converted the ENIAC into a stored program machine, making it easier and faster to program larger and more sophisticated problems. Jean then programmed the BINAC, designed logic for UNIVAC I, designed an electrostatic memory backup system for UNIVAC I, and later, developed reports to help businesses understand a powerful new class of computers, the microcomputer. She worked tirelessly to make computers easier to use.
After programming the ENIAC, Betty Holberton joined the company founded by Eckert and Mauchly and worked on the first commercial computers. She wrote the C-10 instruction code for UNIVAC I, forever making programming easier and faster for programmers. She designed the control console for UNIVAC I and its computer keyboards and numeric keypad. In 1952, she designed the first sort merge generator for UNIVAC I. She served on the COBOL committee to design the first business language to operate across computer platforms, wrote standards for FORTRAN and served on national and international computer standards committees for decades.” (excerpt from the introduction of the ENIAC Women’s Induction into the WITI Hall of Fame)