Unsung innovators: Jean Bartik, ENIAC programmer

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."

About two months after landing that job, Bartik says a notice came around announcing that there were some openings for programmers to work on a mysterious, giant computer called the ENIAC. Five women were selected. Bartik received a second alternate position. But when the other two women turned down the posts for different reasons, Bartik got her job.

"As I always say," she says self-deprecatingly. "Luck beats brains." Although, Bartik adds, you need brains to keep the lucky streak going.

"I was surprised when they told me I had been selected to be an ENIAC programmer," she says. She and the other women selected went to the Army's facility in Aberdeen, Md., for two months to learn punch-card equipment. The proving ground is located on about 32,000 acres of mainly swamp land about 60 miles from Washington. It also was the base for about 20,000 soldiers.

Until they received security clearance, the women weren't even allowed to see the giant 80-foot-long by 9-foot-high machine they were programming. "All we had were logical diagrams to learn how to program the thing," she says. "They just left us to find a place to sit. We didn't even have an office. Betty Snyder and I sat in an empty classroom. They were building the third floor of the Moore School we were [working] in. There were jackhammers going on, and it was hot and humid."

Then one day, a man walked in "to check if the ceiling was falling in on us." It was John Mauchley, co-inventor with J. Presper Eckert of the ENIAC. "We began asking all kinds of questions about the computer -- the accumulators, everything -- he answered everything we needed to know, and we kept working."

"Finally, in September, we did get our own office, so the programmers were all together again. Kay McNulty, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff and Ruth Lichterman were ready to go. Fran Bilas joined the group when we came back from Aberdeen."

But the team of programmers didn't get to see the actual system until one day in October 1945, around two months after the women had first started working on the computer. At that point, two scientists from Los Alamos came to test run a nuclear problem. John von Neumann had convinced the University of Pennsylvania to run a test to see if the ENIAC worked.

"That was also the first day we got to meet the engineers," she remembers. And that was when the Betty and the other five programmers got to work.

"We could debug the ENIAC better than the engineers who had built it. You know how engineers like to create but they don't like to have anything to do with debugging. Well, Betty and I got so we could figure out what vacuum tube out of 18,000 had burned out. We could run our [debugging] program and see if there were errors. If so, we could set breakpoints and home in on the problem by powers of 2. I tell you, those engineers loved it. They could leave the debugging to us and go back to working on the next machine, the EDVAC."

The engineers discovered that most tubes blew when the ENIAC was first turned on because of the surge of power that occurred at that time. So they stopped turning it off, and the tube failure rate went down to about one every two days versus blowing several tubes every day, Bartik says.

Working on the ENIAC was a high point and the biggest adventure Bartik says she could ever have imagined. "Working with Pres [Eckert] and John [Mauchley] was the greatest experience of my life. I loved those guys. They knew how to listen. You could make suggestions, and they'd consider them, and we could work on them.

"Don't you love people who make you a better person than you are? Well, they made me a person in just that way. That job was -- well, I thought I had died and gone to heaven ... I had never worked with so many brilliant people in my life. My brain was running in high gear."

After the war, the female programmers mostly scattered, but Bartik stayed at the Moore School for a while, then joined Eckert and Mauchley as they started their own computer company, called EMCC. Bartik was charged with programming the BINAC and UNIVAC. The BINAC was the first computer built from the start as a "stored-program computer," an innovation that made it possible for computers to "remember" their software and not have to be constantly reprogrammed every time a new problem was introduced.

For those computers, I was "doing programming, logical design, putting in check circuits and designing a backup using cathode-ray tube memory." Then, in 1951, Bartik took 16 years off to raise her family. She returned to the workforce in 1967 to a radically different computer industry. "I left right about the time the transistor was invented, can you imagine?"

Bartik, who says she relies on e-mail and is a regular reader of online technology publications, is amazed at the progress made since the ENIAC's first tenuous steps into U.S. computer history. "It takes my breath away to see what's happened since then. I mean, I remember as a girl being impressed with Dick Tracy's radio watch [in the comics] back then. The biggest surprise for me was after the transistor was invented ... and the miniaturization that led to the world we know today.

"When I read now about processors and the huge numbers of instructions they can process a second, well, it's amazing," Bartik says.

She still gets the school's attention, by the way. The school, now Northwest Missouri State University, boasts a Jean Jennings Bartik Computing Museum. Bartik frequently visits and even served as grand marshall of the homecoming parade in October. The museum specializes in PCs, Digital Equipment Corp.'s PDP-11 and VAX, and ENIAC, BINAC and UNIVAC memorabilia.

Asked whether she has any advice for young women thinking about getting into technology, Bartik suggests, "I just say do what you love. I loved every minute of what I did. If you don't love what you do, what do you have?"

Bartik also quotes her friend and fellow ENIAC programmer, the late Betty Snyder Holberton, as giving some good advice for women at the time: "Look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man, and work like a dog."

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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