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Unsung innovators: Jean Bartik, ENIAC programmer

By Gina Smith
December 3, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Jean Bartik, born Betty Jean Jennings in rural Missouri in 1924 and educated in a one-room schoolhouse, always dreamed of getting out of the Midwest and having a real adventure in the world.

She lived her dream, as it turns out. Bartik was one of six women responsible for programming the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), a giant of a machine charged with calculating bullet trajectories during World War II.

Bartik was also the implementer of the first stored-program computer. She helped ENIAC use its function tables to store a programmed instruction set as read-only memory in firmware. Later, she worked on a follow-on computer, UNIVAC, that could store programs in memory. UNIVAC was the first commercially sold computer.

"I got my adventure, all right. It was the greatest adventure of my life," she says. "I was definitely at the right place at the right time."

Bartik was a freshman at Northwest Missouri Teachers College majoring in math in 1941, the year Pearl Harbor was bombed. Suddenly, the school was emptied of its male students, who either had been drafted for the war or enlisted for the cause.

Sailors got sent into the school for officers' training, "and suddenly I found myself in math classes with a bunch of sailors," she says. "I'd be the only woman and civilian in the class. You could imagine I got a lot of attention!"

Jean Bartik, ENIAC programmer
Jean Bartik, ENIAC programmer
But that attention was only the beginning of what was to become life-changing work rife with technological accomplishments. After Bartik completed her coursework in January 1945 -- and despite pressure to stay home and become a teacher -- she listened to a wise mentor's advice instead. "It was my calculus teacher who brought me a recruiting letter from a math society," Bartik recalls. "She said: 'Go to the University of Pennsylvania; it has a differential analyzer.'"

Turns out that the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Electrical Engineering, where the U.S. Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground had a project, was seeking female math majors. Bartik applied and got hired as a so-called computer -- an employee who calculated bullet trajectories by hand on what were state-of-the-art mathematical calculators at the time.

"They gave me $2,000 a year; can you believe that?" she says now. Bartik earned an extra $400 for working Saturdays, but because she was a woman, she wasn't allowed a professional rating. "Even Ph.D. women weren't allowed professional titles," she says. "It's just how it was."

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