Kathy Kleiman discovered the untold story of the women behind one of the first computers
It all started with a photograph. Kathy Kleiman noticed an image of women surrounding the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer, one of the first ever electronic computers. She was curious about their role, but was told by the cofounder of the Computer History Museum that the women were little more than models hired to show off the computer in promotional photos. When Kleiman realized the true role the women played in creating the functioning ENIAC, she was astounded.
Kay McNulty, Betty Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Meltzer, Fran Bilas and Ruth Lichterman were the six women responsible for programming the ENIAC. To tell their story, Kleiman began to research the women and eventually helped to create the documentary “The Computers.” On Saturday at noon, as part of ’DEIS Impact, Kleiman hosted a Q & A following a screening of the documentary. The event, “Overlooked STEM Women: Gender Justice Then and Now,” was hosted by Brandeis Encourages Women in Science and Engineering.
World War II and the subsequent loss of many young men to the war opened many jobs to women. The United States Army during this time needed mathematicians to create ballistic firing tables. Based on data gathered regarding weather and target distance, the arc of a missile had to be changed to ensure accuracy.
However, most male mathematicians had already been hired by the government and were working on other tasks like the Manhattan Project.
The positions for “computers” were then opened to women. Over 100 women were hired to calculate these trajectories, including McNulty, Jennings, Snyder, Meltzer, Bilas and Lichterman. However, it still would take over 40 hours for a single equation to be solved.
The government therefore embarked on an ambitious project to create a machine which could calculate equations faster than any human ever could. This project was the computer ENIAC. Though most of the computer itself had been built, the army still needed people to code the machine. This is where the six women came in. Though they weren’t initially given security clearance to see the machine, the women were expected to figure out how to code ENIAC based on electrical diagrams they were given. They were expected to figure out the role of 18,000 vacuum tubes and 3,000 sockets, which all had to be connected with cables.
Sadly, ENIAC wasn’t completed before the end of the war. As young men returned home, many of the jobs that had been held by women were returned to the men. However, the army begged the ENIAC coders to stay and finish their work. They had figured out how to code ENIAC on their own; they were pioneers in the field of computer science. And eventually, they achieved success. “It wasn’t like they set out on a course to [develop a new field]; they were just trying to respond to needs,” Kleiman said.
Even after ENIAC was completed, the women programmers helped to transition the next generation of computer coders. Despite these successes, the story of these women went untold for decades. “The world needs to know who its pioneers are,” Kleiman said.
Uncovering the untold story of these coders was Kleiman’s undergraduate thesis at Harvard University — “My never-ending thesis,” she laughed during the Q & A. Kleiman was able to connect with many of the programmers and developed personal relationships with them.
And to the audience members who often come to Kleiman with stories of their aunts and grandmothers who were also pioneers, Kleiman ended with a piece of advice: “Please record them. There are tons and tons of fascinating stories out there. … If you find them, record them.”