It’s 75 Years Since We Built The World’s First Computer And Women Were A Big Part Of It

Pamela Connellan
on February 16, 2021

This week, we’re celebrating the 75th anniversary of ENIAC day – the day the first all-electronic programmable computer was unveiled. Interestingly, many of us may not realise there was a group of pioneering women who helped with the invention and led the programming of this device.

It all happened in 1943 when the war was hanging in the balance and the US army was looking for an edge. Those in charge realised they needed  a faster way to calculate trajectories for artillery and missiles. Typically, this took thousands of hours but they needed this information faster.

They realised it would be better to build a machine which could do the job, as they needed these calculations completed faster than humanly possible in order to shorten the war. Thus, the world’s first all-electronic computer, the ENIAC, was invented.

The computer was able to perform many different functions, but it couldn’t store its own program, so with every new task, the ENIAC had to be reprogrammed.  A group of six women were responsible for constantly resetting and re-plugging thousands of switches and hundreds of cables.

Some of these skilled women were the trained to become the first programmers of this machine, and therefore, the first ever computer programmers. So when we look at it – women have been in computer programming for a very long time!

When the ENIAC was nearing completion, six women were chosen from among the human computers to be trained as programmers. These were Kay McNultyFrances BilasBetty Jean Jennings, Elizabeth Snyder, Ruth Lichterman, and Marlyn Wescoff.

The six women chosen to be programmers devised the very first computer program, which was demonstrated when the ENIAC was unveiled in early 1946.

So February 15th is the date and it was 75 years ago that the ENIAC was unveiled. As we look back on the 75th anniversary of the ENIAC, we an only thank the many amazing women who worked tirelessly on this machine to thank for a shortened war and the creation of one of the most valuable tools of the 20th Century.

Jim Thompson, Unisys

Women Love Tech was able to ask Jim Thompson, ClearPath Forward’s Chief Technology Officer and Chief Engineer at Unisys, based in Philadelphia, these questions:

WLT: How does ENIAC Day show that women are very capable of working in programming?

As the ones who literally programmed the ENIAC, the first computer programmers in the world were women, and the ENIAC’s invention and deployment would never have been possible without them. The invention of the ENIAC is a reflection of how talented and hardworking women have been working in the field of programming since the very beginning.

Kay McNulty, Frances Bilas, Betty Jean Jennings, Elizabeth Snyder, Ruth Lichterman, and Marlyn Wescoff were the pioneers of a new career and industry and were the first of thousands of incredible programmers. We hope that their stories inspire more incredible women entering the industry. Unisys is proud to sponsor World ENIAC day and to have highlighted the work of these women.

WLT: How we can encourage more women to get involved in programming?

We shouldn’t have to remind women that they can do anything – there are countless inspirational stories celebrating the ‘firsts’ that so many have been involved in … without Women ‘computers’ America’s space program would not have succeeded.   

Margaret Hamilton,  Christine Darden. and Mary Jackson, mathematician Katherine Johnson and computer programmer Dorothy Vaughan made the difference in an age where race and gender made this much more difficult.   Until being the “first woman <anything>” isn’t news, we need to take pains to make Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) open, welcoming and attractive to women.

About ENIAC Day: Unisys is the primary sponsor of ENIAC Day largely because the company is the successor to Sperry UNIVAC, the company founded by ENIAC inventors J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly. These two men also invented UNIVAC, the world’s first commercial computer.

For more from Women Love Tech on women in STEM, click here.

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