Archive for the 'computing history' category

Jean Jennings Bartik (12/27/24 – 3/23/2011)

Mar 28 2011 Published by under computing history, women

Jean Bartik, the last of the six "female computers" I blogged about last month, passed away last week.

CNN wrote a nice obituary. I liked this part a lot:

"Jean is probably one of the most significant pioneers in computing," Rickman said. "Jean worked hard and, as a woman in a man's world at that time, especially in the business world, it's amazing what she was able to accomplish."

Bartik graduated from Northwest Missouri State Teachers College in 1945 as the school's one math major. She recalled living on her parents' farm, refusing the teaching jobs her father suggested and avoiding all talk of marrying a farmer and having babies. Instead, she took a train to Philadelphia to work for the military.

Forget babies! I'm going to go program computers.

I love that. It was such a revolutionary thing to do in the 1940s. Hard to imagine in today's world how revolutionary that was.

The article ends with a quote from Jean:

In February, Bartik said women hadn't gotten far enough in technology, but she saw a promising future.

"Women are busily working on it," she said. "I have high hopes for them."

My thoughts go out to her family and friends. I hope they can take comfort in the fact that hundreds of women all over the world have been inspired by Jean, including this one.


PS - In case you were wondering, the banner at the top of my FCS blog features two other "female computers" who were Jean's contemporaries, Ester Gerston and Gloria Ruth Gorden. Here's a picture of Jean programming the ENIAC.

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Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII

Feb 14 2011 Published by under computing history, women

In 1942, when computers were human and women were underestimated, a group of female mathematicians helped win a war and usher in the modern computer age. Sixty-five years later their story has finally been told.

Fabulous, fabulous, fabulous! There is a new documentary called Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of World War II about female mathematicians and scientists who were secretly recruited to do ballistics research and crack codes during WWII. (They were called "Female Computers", back in the days when "computer" meant "one who computes")

Unsurprisingly, because the research was classified, the efforts of these women went largely unsung until Professor LeAnn Erickson, faculty at Temple, made a documentary about them.

CNN has a nice write up about the film, and includes an anecdote about work on the ENIAC (the other "first" computer). Though, this part made me cringe:

The war ended in 1945, but within a couple months of arriving in Philadelphia, Bartik was hired to work on a related project -- an electronic computer that could do calculations faster than any man or woman. The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, created by Penn scientists John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert Jr., weighed more than 30 tons and contained about 18,000 vacuum tubes. It recognized numbers, added, subtracted, multiplied, divided and a few other basic functions.

Men had built the machine, but Bartik and her colleagues debugged every vacuum tube and learned how to make it work, she said. Early on, they demonstrated to the military brass how the computer worked, with the programmers setting the process into motion and showing how it produced an answer. They handed out its punch cards as souvenirs. They'd taught the massive machine do math that would've taken hours by hand.

But none of the women programmers was invited to the celebratory dinner that followed. Later, they heard they were thought of as models, placed there to show off the machine.

I'd like to think we've come a long way since 1945, but I have heard recent stories of female technologists demonstrating things at technology shows whom male attendees assume are booth babes, so maybe we're not quite there yet.

In any case, if you are interested in seeing the film, the creators have several screenings scheduled, and are planning more. Also I believe you can rent it on Netflix. Or, check your local PBS listings.

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