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ENIAC WOMEN: the untold story of women who changed the future of computers

Updated: Feb 1, 2021

By Anjali Dubey


The ENIAC or the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer was the world’s first programmable, electronic, general purpose digital computer and was the predecessor to all the general purpose computers in our life today. While working on her college project in the mid-1980’s, Kathy Kleiman, a young computer programmer came across an old picture of the ENIAC with six women standing in front of it. When she asked the museum cofounder about the picture, she was told that they were “refrigerator ladies”, models made to pose in front of machines to make them look better. After researching more on her own, Kathy found that these women were none other than the ENIAC’s first women programmers!

Chosen from a group of about 200 women employed as computer scientists at the Moore School of Engineering, Kay McNulty , Betty Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Meltzer, Fran Bilas and Ruth Lichterman were made responsible for programming a device that would calculate artillery firing tables and perform early research into the creation of hydrogen bomb during World War 2. These brilliant women learned how to program without any programming languages or tools- only logical diagrams. They physically hand wired the machine using switches, cables and digit-rays to route data and program pulses. However, when the time came for the ENIAC to be unveiled to the public, these women were never mentioned.

The stories of these women were thoroughly swept under the rug and they never got the recognition they deserved during their lifetime. But women like them are great inspirations for us all. They defied gender norms and turned the impossible to possible. Without them we couldn’t even imagine the future of modern computers. It is time for them to be appreciated and recognized for their contribution to the world, for working tirelessly for the future of technology and for their work encouraging women and young girls to explore the world of computer programming.

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