Frances Bilas Spence
In the 1940’s, the U.S. Army was secretly working on a classified project, an electronic “computer” that would calculate ballistic trajectories in seconds. The ENIAC was demonstrated in February of 1946, doing in moments a job that had previously taken days for the women who worked as “computers.” But the ENIAC still needed to be programmed by those women. Today, we’d like to introduce one of original “computers,” Frances Bilas Spence.
Spence was born in Philadelphia on March 2, 1922. While she began her college career at Temple, she received a scholarship to Chestnut Hill College and transferred there. There she met fellow mathematics major Kathleen McNulty, the two graduated together in 1942. Spence had already begin working at a Philadelphia High School, intending to become a teacher when Kathleen told her friend about an ad she had seen looking for women math majors. They responded to the ad and were hired at Moore College of Engineering to work as “computers.”
The two women stayed close in their years calculating trajectories, and were even chosen to work on a machine called a differential analyzer. The analyzer was rare, only five or six existed in the world at the time. Using it, they could cut the workload for a calculation from 40 hours to less than one hour. But even though their work could be completed more quickly, they still were putting in six days a week working for the Army.
Because of their expertise and dedication, the pair were chosen as part of the team of six initial women to train and program the ENIAC. It was there that Frances met Homer Spence, who was an electrical engineer for the project and a soldier. Frances continued to work on the machine after it was moved from Moore School to Aberdeen Proving Grounds, and Homer was promoted to Chief of the Computer Research Branch. The two were married shortly after, and Frances retired after the birth of her first son. She later moved to New York with her family. Frances Spence died in 2012, the last of the original ENIAC programmers.
Written by Mary Ratliff