Jean Jennings Bartik
It was February of 1946 when the ENIAC computer was first unveiled to the world. This week, we’re honoring the women behind this amazing achievement in computing history, the original computer programmers. One of the women who helped make the ENIAC a “stored program computer” was Jean Jennings Bartik.
There were a lot of teachers in Bartik’s family, and they expected her to follow in their footsteps but she didn’t want to be a teacher, though she attended Northwest Missouri State Teachers College and graduated in 1945. Bartik said in college, her school set up courses just for her, modern geometry and theory of numbers because she was the only math major at the time. Originally when she applied for the job as a government “computer,” they didn’t actually respond to her for months, before sending a telegram telling her to “come immediately” and she jumped on a train the next day.
The programmers in the Philadelphia office earned a “sub-professional” pay grade, because Bartik points out the government didn’t give out professional titles to women at the time, even if they had PhD’s. The women worked six days a week, earning a bonus for working on Saturdays.
The “computers” weren’t given a proper working area, and didn’t have a real place to sit and do their calculations. The building was also under construction, and Bartik describes working while jackhammers and other equipment were running all day. It was during that time that she met John Mauchly, who personally assisted in learning the ins and outs of the machine.
She has said that on the day that the ENIAC was first publicly demonstrated, it calculated the trajectory “faster than it took the bullet to travel” and that it was one of the most exciting days of her life.
She then went on help Mauchly and John Eckert develop the BINAC and UNIVAC 1 computers in an environment she called “technical Camelot.” Mauchly walked Bartik down the aisle when she was married. She also worked as an editor for publications focused on technology and computing. Northwest Missouri State University named a computing museum in her honor, and in 2008, she was made a fellow of the Computer History Museum. She died in March of 2011.
Written by Mary Ratliff