Betty Snyder Holberton
“These women, being the first to enter this new territory, were the first to encounter the whole question of programming, and they met the challenge.”
Computer historian Paul Ceruzzi of the Smithsonian is describing the original ENIAC programmers, the women who were integral to the fledgling world of computer science. This week we honor those women, today we’ll meet Francis “Betty” Holberton.
Holberton was a native of Philadelphia, and attended the University of Pennsylvania where she studied journalism. But as the U.S. entered World War II, Holberton became a “computer” for the U.S. Army.
Once she was selected to work on the ENIAC, Holberton was part of a team that had to learn to program the machine without being allowed to actually see it, since it was classified and they had to use blueprints. Holberton said that they made diagrams on paper to ensure the work was done correctly, the first beginnings of programming, though there wasn’t a word for it at the time.
Holberton often worked closely with Jean Jennings Bartik, the two helped lead programming for the first public demonstration of the ENIAC on February 14, 1946. The two faced a big challenge: the machine could calculate the trajectory, but it didn’t stop when the missile would have hit the ground. After giving up and going home, Holberton said she woke up in the middle of the night with an idea of a fix, and in the morning she flipped a switch and the error was gone. Bartik said “Betty could do more logical reasoning while she was asleep than most people can do when awake.” But despite this enormous contribution to the successful demonstration, the women were not invited to the celebratory dinner afterwards.
After the war, the Army started to allow non-military calculations to be run on the ENIAC. Along with Bartik, Holberton converted the computer to a stored-program machine. This change reduced programming time dramatically. She also followed Bartik to work with Eckert and Mauchly on the UNIVAC and BINAC programming. Later she worked for the Navy’s Applied Math Lab, and helped develop early standards for COBOL and FORTRAN with Grace Hopper.
Holberton has said, “I had a fantastic life. Everything I did was the beginning of something new.”
Written by Mary Ratliff