Kathleen McNulty Antonelli
On February 15, 1946, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer was formally dedicated at the University of Pennsylvania, after having been announced the night before. The ENIAC is considered the first electronic computer, and it was major milestone in creating the modern computer age. It was also originally programmed by women.
Kathleen Antonelli was born on February 12, 1921 in a small Irish village. Her family moved to the United States when she was three. She first started to focus on math in high school, and then attended Chestnut Hill College for Women. In college, she took every math course that she could find, and earned a degree in mathematics in 1942.
Antonelli didn’t want to follow the expected path and become a teacher, and so she began looking for other mathematics related careers. Not long after graduation she noticed an ad in the Philadelphia Inquirer looking for women math majors. The U.S. Army was looking for women to work as “computers” and calculate bullet and missile trajectories for the Ballistic Research Laboratory. Hired on to work at an office at the Moore School of Engineering, Antonelli had found a career that used her math skills and also would help the war effort.
Calculating even one trajectory would require 30 to 40 hours of work using the firing tables and desk calculators that were standard at the time. The ENIAC machine was developed to make these calculations even more swiftly and efficiently, and Antonelli was chosen to be one of the first six women who would program the machine. Antonelli is credited as having the idea of using a master program and subroutines.
In 1947, the ENIAC machine was moved from Philadelphia to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, and Antonelli moved with it, continuing to work as a programmer. She worked there until marrying one of the inventors of the ENIAC, John Mauchly. Mauchly designed the hardware for later computers, the BINAC and UNIVAC I, and she worked on the software. The two worked together until Mauchly’s death in 1980. Antonelli gave many interviews and talks about her time as an ENIAC programmer, making sure that the contributions of those pioneering women were honored by history.
Written by Mary Ratliff