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Jean Jennings Bartik

1924-2011

After finishing her degree in Mathematics and looking for an adventure, farm-born Jean Jennings Bartik went to work for the United States Navy. Here, together with approximately a hundred more women, she performed routinized math tasks by hand. Primarily, this meant the calculation of artillery trajectory tables. The Navy would become the starting place of her revolutionary career in Computer Science. It would encompass both her involvement in the programming of the first electronic general-purpose computer (the ENIAC), as well as her contribution to the stored program computer architecture. It was equally in the Navy where she developed a strong feminist voice that she would uphold throughout the rest of her life.

Indeed, Jean was one of the original six women of the ENIAC team that succeeded in programming, for the first time ever, a fully-electronic general-purpose computer. What differentiated this computer from its predecessors was that it could perform a number of applications, rather than only one. As such, it was no longer needed that a new computer was made for every new application, be it the calculation of rocket trajectories or artillery firing tables. There would be only one computer performing several tasks depending on the software run on it. This pivotal point in the history of Computer Science meant the start of software and hardware coming to live separate lives. Finally, completed in 1945, the ENIAC proved to be highly successful: it could perform in 30 seconds a calculation that took the human ‘computers’ approximately 20 hours.

After the Second World War, Jean assembled and trained the team that would convert the ENIAC into a stored-program computer: by storing computer programs in the same memory as its data, it would be possible to easily modify those programs even while running. As such, the programming time got reduced from days to hours. Up to her retirement in 1951, Jean continued on improving this stored-program computer architecture with its successor, the UNIVAC Computer. Due to its special architecture, the UNIVAC would outshine its closest competitors by being a thousand times faster.

Jean never made it a secret that she felt discriminated against for being a woman. “If the ENIAC’s administrators had known how crucial programming would be [...] they might have been hesitant to give such an important role to women,’’ she once proclaimed. Her criticism was justified. When the ENIAC was finally unveiled at the start of 1946, the women of ENIAC were not even invited to the pompous event. The experience inspired Jean to write an autobiography about all the instances where she and her peers were ignored in history. After having raised her voice at multiple events, Jean finally got acknowledged for her pioneering work. Among others, she has been inducted in the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame in 1997.

Jean Jennings Bartik

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