Ada Lovelace Day - Jean Bartik


War is hell. Everyone knows that. But sometimes the incidental effects of war can have some tentative, positive side-effects. During both World Wars, so many men were away fighting that -- for the first time -- women were actively recruited into work that would once have been considered too physically tough, technical or otherwise 'unsuitable' for them. In Britain during WWII, the Women's Land Army employed women to work in the fields, others worked in factories, producing munitions and other vital components of the war effort, while 'Wrens' in the Women's Royal Naval Service shuttled aircraft between airfields, among many other important tasks. Until the recently, other more secret roles have gone undocumented: Wrens and civilian women were important in the code-breaking work at stations such as Bletchley Park, Eastcote and Stanmore. Similar recruitment campaigns (including the famous Rosie the Riveter campaign) operated in the USA, encouraged women into manufacturing jobs in the States. I'm sure that some of the women disliked the work they had to do and acted out of a sense of duty, or were conscripted and had no choice in the matter. But for many of the women, it was a taste of freedom and opened up an exciting new world of work that they relished and were extremely good at.

This Ada Lovelace Day pledge encourages us to write about one woman in technology who has inspired us. I'd like to dedicate this piece to all the women who accepted the challenge of technical work during the World Wars and flourished intellectually in what had previously been considered a man's environment. Since those women are now mainly nameless (as well as far too numerous for a brief article), I'll use one woman as an example: Jean Bartik.

I mean no disrespect to Jean Bartik -- her story is remarkable, and the honours she has received are richly deserved. However, as she herself has modestly insisted, she was in the right place at the right time. Born in rural Missouri and brought up on a farm, she had a strong interest in mathematics from an early age. This was unremarkable in her family, since all of her siblings were talented mathematicians, but she was the only mathematics major in her College. People may have no longer insisted that teaching women mathematics would damage their brains, as was commonly believed in Ada Lovelace's time, but it was still relatively unusual. Jean came from a long line of school teachers, but resisted joining the profession. When she heard that the US Army was recruiting mathematics majors as "human calculators" to calculate trajectories at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, Jean jumped at the chance to apply. The war effort provided opportunities for women, but that did not mean equality. Jean's rank was 'Sub-Professional 6', as women were not allowed the rank of Professional, even if they had doctorates in mathematics.

The trajectory calculations were needed to compile firing tables for the artillery, which were used to look up the appropriate angle and elevation at which to set the gun to reach a particular target. The work was rather repetitive and dull, as so many variables needed to be considered to calculate the trajectory of a shell. Initial velocity, wind speed and drag all contributed to the trajectory, and as Jean put it "when it breaks the speed of sound, all hell breaks loose!". Each trajectory took a human computer 30-40 hours to calculate and 1000 trajectories were required to complete the firing table. There had to be a faster way to do it.

The ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) was a secret project funded by the US Army at the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Electrical Engineering. A huge all-electronic, general-purpose computer, the ENIAC lined four walls of a room and was 80 feet long and 8 feet high. It had thousands of components, including 18,000 vacuum tubes, and reached the then blistering processing speed of 5,000 additions per second. While the hardware was largely complete, they needed people to program ENIAC to calculate trajectories, and when they advertised for mathematicians, Jean became one of the six female programmers.

It is difficult to appreciate now how difficult the programming task must have been. If you want to learn any computer language today, there are usually thousands of resources available to you in books or online, which explain the syntax, operators and classes in great detail with plenty of practical examples. Jean and her colleagues had no such guides, because no-one had ever programmed this computer before, and there was no 'language' as such. Programming the computer was done by physically connecting components with cables. All they had were block diagrams of ENIAC, and because their security clearance was delayed, they were not even allowed to see the machine itself until several months after starting work. Nonetheless, with their formidable talent, and with their questions answered by John Mauchly (one of the inventors of ENIAC), they began to understand the computer from the inside out -- something that Jean considers helped them enormously when they came to programming the machine and knowing how it performed the calculations.

The women -- as Jean puts it -- were the "workhorses and finishers". She describes (in a way that will be wearily familiar to many women reading) how the men liked to design the exciting bits, and were happy to leave the boring, lengthy debugging and finishing jobs to the women. They worked in pairs, and Jean describes with great affection and respect how skilled her work partner, Betty Holberton (neé Snyder), was at debugging systems and finding the solutions to seemingly impossible problems.

In February 1946, ENIAC was finally ready to unveil to the scientific community. It was a great success, but Jean and Betty were devastated when their contribution to the project was completely ignored. They were not even invited to the celebration dinner after the event. The prevailing view at the time was that the hardware was the really special part, but it's clear to anyone today that the hardware and 'software' were inseparable: without the hard work of the women programmers, the hardware would have been useless. The women appear in many of the photographs of the time, in front of the huge computer, but when historian Kathy Kleiman (who has done a lot to publicise the work of the ENIAC programmers) tried to find out about who these women were, she was told that they were "refrigerator ladies", there to add a bit of glamour to the photographs. Refrigerator ladies. Pfftt.

Jean was clearly hurt by the snub, but she is a practical, stoical woman and picked herself up and carried on. She went on to have a long career in computing, working in the 1950s for the Eckert and Mauchly Computer Corporation on the UNIVAC mainframe (among other companies), and then after a career break to raise a family, on the new breed of minicomputers. Her work partner Betty apparently had a saying: "Look like a girl, act like a lady, work like a dog... and think like a man." Sadly, the kind of workplace environment which made that grimly comic statement instantly familiar to women in technology (and other technical fields) is still prevalent today, though to a lesser extent. It is still difficult for women to be taken seriously and treated equally in such fields. Still, we're getting there gradually, and consciousness-raising events (to use an unfashionable phrase) like Ada Lovelace Day can only help. Let's make it an annual event!

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