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The ENIAC Team

The Sensational Six:
Betty Jennings
Betty Snyder
Marlyn Wescoff
Fran Bilas
Ruth Lichterman
Kay McNulty

One can say that, in 1945, two teams were competing in a race to realize the first ever general- purpose computer. One team was led by, among others, the famous computer scientist Grace Hopper. Her computer, the Mark I, soon became the most easily programmable big computer, being able to switch tasks simply by getting new instructions through punched paper tape rather than requiring a configuration of its cables. Because of this, Grace quickly deemed her computer superior over the other. She made a valid point. The other one, named the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) could only be ‘programmed’ by altering cable connections. As Grace would say: “you plugged the pieces and essentially you built a special computer for each job”. As a result, the time it took for the ENIAC to be reprogrammed, which could be an entire day, wiped out the advantage it had in processing speed: given that the ENIAC was a fully electronic computer, while the Mark I still used slow and clackety electromechanical relays, the first was more than eight times faster once it was running.

To make the ENIAC as ‘general-purpose’ as the Mark I - and to outstrip it as well - a group of six women endeavoured to demonstrate that the programming of a computer is as significant as the design of its hardware. More profoundly, they showed an early understanding of a defining fact of the subsequent computer age: hardware would become commoditized and programming would be the locus of its true value, something that eluded most men until the arrival of Bill Gates in the 1970s.

The women of ENIAC, who started their careers at the United States Army as human ‘computers’ calculating artillery trajectories by hand, were asked to delegate the various tasks for which the ENIAC was needed not to the hardware - as it was done up to that moment - but to the software. And they succeeded. Using (nested) subroutines and modularization, computer code could be repeated for new tasks without the need to continuously reset the hardware, the arduous task they had set to eliminate. At the end of 1945, the ENIAC was used in practice for the first time.

Regrettably, the six women mentioned now were not recognized for their trailblazing work until the 1980s. Interestingly, when researcher Kathy Kleiman, at the start of the 1980s, came across a photograph of the six women standing next to the ENIAC, a representative of the Computer History Museum told they were ‘refrigerator models’ standing in the photograph only to make the product look good. Nevertheless, due to the efforts of Kleiman and her peers, the Women of ENIAC have finally become recognized for their major contributions. Most notably, in 1997, the six women were being inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame.

The ENIAC Team

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