The ENIAC Programmers: ‘Refrigerator Ladies’ No More

Last Updated: December 19, 2017 6:00 am
The ENIAC Programmers: ‘Refrigerator Ladies’ No More

The ENIAC Programmers: ‘Refrigerator Ladies’ No More

When historians first found photos of the women who coded instructions for ENIAC, the first all-electronic digital computer, they mistook them for “Refrigerator Ladies” – models posing in front of the machines. Francis “Betty” Snyder Holberton, Betty “Jean” Jennings Bartik, Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum, and Frances Bilas Spence had some of the greatest (and largely overlooked) contributions to early computing in America. The group of women manually programmed the computer for the US Military, cutting down ballistic firing calculation times down from 30 hours to just a few seconds. Although their hard work was not acknowledged until long after the programmers had completed their work on ENIAC, their impact on the field is undeniable.

The role of the women who programmed ENIAC was uncovered by a woman named Kathy Kleiman. As a Harvard undergrad studying computer science in the 1980s, Kleiman noticed that there were fewer and fewer women in her classes as she progressed in her coursework.

“I found myself wondering if women had much of a role in the history of computing at all,” Kleiman said. “So I turned to history to see if I could find any role models.”

This is when Kleiman found the photo of ENIAC from 1946, accompanied by the names of all the men photographed but none of the women. She was told that the women were models, but Kleiman didn’t buy it – “In photo after photo, the women were interacting with the ENIAC, manipulating cables and switches,” she said. “It looked like they knew what they were doing.” Kleiman made it her mission to find out exactly who these women were.

During World War II, the US Army relied heavily on mathematicians – specifically women calculators – to calculate the trajectories of ballistic missiles. To increase the speed of calculations, the Army funded an experimental project called ENIAC, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer. Out of the hundred or so women calculators, the Army chose five women at random (later adding a sixth) to program ENIAC.

“The engineers handed the women the logistical diagrams of ENIAC’s 40 panels and and the women learned from there,” Kleiman said. “They had no programming languages or compilers. Their job was to program ENIAC to perform the firing table equations they knew so well.”

After more research, Kleiman found the women’s names mentioned in the autobiography of a man who once supervised the ENIAC women. She found out that they hadn’t been invited to the ENIAC’s 50th anniversary event – and that in fact, the organizers of the Women in Technology International annual conference weren’t even aware of the women’s work.

“Their work had been so thoroughly swept under the rug,” according to Digital Trends, “that even a group dedicated to furthering the status of women in the tech industry had no knowledge of the work ENIAC programmers had accomplished five decades earlier.” Kleiman decided to track down the women to record and share their stories.

“They were shocked to be discovered,” Kleiman said. “They were thrilled to be recognized, but had mixed impressions about how they felt about being ignored for so long.” After spending decades in the shadows, the ENIAC programmers were inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame, and each of the women finally received recognition for their achievements in the field of computing.

Although the ENIAC programmers had to wait 50 years to receive credit for their work, their roles as programmers is incredibly impactful. Not only did they do vital work for the military during World War II, but they also proved to women and girls everywhere that they have a place in computing and other STEM fields!

This article is part of a series on women in STEM – check our blog soon for the next one!

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