Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer
It was 70 years ago this week that the ENIAC computer was demonstrated to the public. As part of our special series, we are honoring the women who programmed “the first computer,” including Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer.
Meltzer was a Philadelphia native, and went to Temple University. She majored in mathematics and minored in business machines. She graduated in 1942, and shortly after went to work at Moore School of Engineering, hired partially because of her expertise with business tools like an adding machine. Meltzer was originally hired to compute weather calculations, but the next year she was re-tasked to working on the differential calculations for ballistic trajectories.
After doing this for a few years, she was brought on to train on the new ENIAC computer, writing programming for a machine that was 80 feet long, and 8 feet tall. The women chosen for the job were sent to Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland to learn the punch card system for the machine.
They were tasked with determining how to align the 3,000 switches required for the machine to operate properly. While the computer could calculate the ballistic trajectories in mere seconds, it could take several days to set up the calculations and perform the programming tasks. The work was painstaking and precise, every single aspect of the machine had to be checked and tested before a problem could be run.
The machine also had its troubles in the beginning, vacuum tubes blowing out multiple times a day and leaving the computer unable to run. It was the women who programmed it that learned to quickly diagnose the problems, literally crawling into the machine to troubleshoot. Fellow programmer Jean Jennings Bartik said that the women were often able to diagnose as well as, if not better, than the engineers because they “knew both the application and the machine.”
Meltzer left the programming team in 1947 to get married, and devoted much of her later life to volunteer work. Along with the rest of the women who programmed the ENIAC, Meltzer was inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame in 1997. She passed away in December of 2008.
Written by Mary Ratliff