Jean Bartik, last of the original ENIAC programmers, 86

Jean Bartik, the last of the original ENIAC programmers, died this morning. She was 86.

She was born Betty Jean Jennings, on Dec. 27, 1924 and raised on a Missouri farm. Her first job was as a human "computor" during World War II.. She joined the programming staff at the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Electrical Engineering in 1945.

ENIAC – the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer – was the first large-scale, fully electronic, and general-purpose computer. Its best-known application was computing firing tables for the U.S. Army, although World War II ended before the computer was finished.

"There was a war on and women were doing everything, including being Rosie the riveter. I wanted to get out of Missouri and see some of the world. I wanted adventure, something new. I was 21 years old when I came to Philadelphia against the advice of everyone except one math teacher," she said in an summary.

Jean Bartik

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  • "We had no manuals for ENIAC. We learned how to program by studying the logical block diagrams. What a blessing. From the beginning, I knew how computers worked. We gained the respect of the engineers from the beginning because we really knew what we were doing and we could debug better than they could because we had our test programs as well as our knowledge of the computer."

    After ENIAC, Bartik followed co-inventors John W. Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert to UNIVAC, where she worked on microcoded logic design and data backup for the UNIVAC 1. She also helped convert ENIAC into a stored-program machine. Later she worked in computer publishing.

    In the 1990s and 2000s, Bartik was bestowed high honors for her work. She received the Augusta Ada Lovelace Award from the Association of Women in Computing in 1997; induction into the Women In Technology International Hall Of Fame, also in 1997; Computer History Museum Fellows Award in 2008; and IEEE Computer Society Computer Pioneer Award in 2009.

    Bartik also gave an oral history (PDF) to the Computer History Museum in 2008, part of which is on YouTube.

    The other original ENIAC programmers were Betty Snyder Holberton, Kathleen McNulty Mauchly, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum and Frances Bilas Spence. The team is being memorialized in an in-progress documentary, Refrigerator Ladies: The Untold Story of the ENIAC Programmers, at, produced by Kathy Kleiman.

    "Jean Bartik was one of the most creative and interesting people I ever met. She was warm and humorous, straight-forward and crystal clear. She would regale us with stories of the ENIAC and computer history, still so real for her, and then listen intently as someone explained our modern systems to her," Kleiman said today.

    "I have two favorite memories of Jean: one is my time with her listening to stories and learning about computer pioneers. The other is from 2008 watching Jean in the Google cafeteria, surrounded by young women from Google, with their heads together swapping stories and laughing. Systems change; challenges in computing, and triumphs, seem to be universal." 

    - Evan Koblentz is a computer historian at the InfoAge Science Center in Wall, New Jersey

    Author's note: the CMOS battery in my brain must need changing; apparently I haven't posted in three years! Expect more posts in the near future. 

    Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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