Women Pioneered Computer Programming. Then Men Took Their Industry Over.

 

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By Josh O’Connor in Timeline.

 

Like many women in the 1930s, Jean Jennings Bartik had studied mathematics. During and after World War II, Bartik and other women actually worked as “computers.” They calculated by hand the trajectories of military rockets and artillery shells depending on how much soldiers elevated the weapon. Each different weapon required a whole table of trajectories for the calculation, and each calculation took more than 30 hours.

In 1945, Bartik heard about a new job, working with something called ENIAC. She wasn’t quite sure what the work entailed, but she took it, hoping to get in on the ground floor with a new technology.

ENIAC was the first large-scale electronic computer whose operation wasn’t slowed down by mechanical parts. It could do the trajectory calculations much faster. Men designed ENIAC , but the gruelling and tedious task of creating programs for it was considered “women’s work,” akin to clerical labor.

“Men were interested in building the hardware,” historian Walter Isaacson told NPR. “Doing the circuits, figuring out the machinery. And women were very good mathematicians back then.” But their work was unglamorous and low paid.

The night before ENIAC was to be first publicly demonstrated, it was malfunctioning. Bartik and her colleague Betty Jennings got it working. At the demonstration, ENIAC did the trajectory calculation in 20 seconds—10 seconds less than it would take the actual shell to reach its target. The audience was “absolutely ecstatic,” Bartik told the Computer History Museum. Nevertheless, Bartik and Jennings went unnamed in press pictures, and they weren’t even invited to the celebration dinner.

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