The first programmers were women?!

Recently, I came across a delightful surprise while listening to the latest Walter Isaacson book, The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. In it, Isaacson reveals that the first computer programmers were women!

I had to learn more, so I did some digging and came across an interview with Jean Jennings Bartik, ENIAC pioneer. Bartik was among six recent college graduates, all women with exceptional math skills, who, in 1946, programmed the ENIAC – the first all-electronic, programmable computer – in a project run by the Army as part of a secret WWII project. These women taught themselves ENIAC’s operation from its logical and electrical block diagrams in order to figure out how to program it. They created their own flow charts and programming sheets. Then, they wrote programs and entered them on the ENIAC using a physical interface that involved hundreds of wires and 3,000 switches. It is hard to imagine any of this as I type on my comparably-tiny laptop!

When the Army revealed the existence of the ENIAC to the public, inventors Dr. John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert received accolades, but the Army never introduced the groundbreaking women who programmed the ENIAC. No one gave them any credit or discussed their critical role! In her interview, Bartik discusses what it meant to be overlooked despite unique and pioneering work as well as what it means to be discovered at long last. I urge you to give it a listen.

My takeaways from watching Bartik’s interview are fodder for many blog pieces. In general, I am left with the sense that women have come a long way, and that we still have a long way to go. Bartik is a great storyteller with a great sense of humor, which is necessary when women remain underdog in tech, whether then or now. I note, though, that her drive did not come from a desire for recognition but, instead, came from deep intellectual curiosity as well as self-expression through innovation. This is necessary for both women and men who desire to push frontiers in tech. It’s also clear that Bartik and the other women knew that they were pushing frontiers at the time and that they appreciated a real sense of progress. They seemed to know that they could do anything as well as anybody, especially working as a team, which they found invaluable.

From a technical perspective, I find it fascinating what I didn’t learn in my computer science classes, not only about the first programmers being women but also about the major contributions to the field that they made. For example, the ENIAC had almost 18,000 vacuum tubes. Imagine how hard it was to find a problem in one of the tubes!  And then, once you debugged the code, you’d have to reload the entire program again, which took a ridiculously long time given all of the complex wiring of the ENIAC. These women came up with a stored program to address this critical issue. This is a fundamental invention in the history of computer science, yet no one ever told the story of ENIAC and its women programmers who were the first to create a stored program; the first time I heard of it was while reading the Isaacson book. To this day, if you look up “stored program” in Wikipedia, there is no mention of the women involved in inventing it.

There is more about Bartik to note, too, as an ongoing inspiration to women. For example, she took 16 years off from work to be a mother to her children. In these days of the “mommy wars,” it seems as though women have to choose to either be an at-home mom or be at work. Bartik shows otherwise. She mentions that women pursuing CS as a field of study today inspire her, and she urges parents and teachers to dispel the myth that girls can’t be as good in math as boys. After all, she was hired because of superior math skills in the forties and is a true pioneer of computer science because of it. When it comes to shattering stereotypes, Bartik’s success, and that of the other ENIAC women, really ought to give us all pause.

History teaches us many lessons, and I am so happy to have stumbled upon the lessons in Bartik’s story. Certainly all folks in tech can learn from the perseverance required to program that very first programmable computer. And we can also all learn from the success of six women who should have received credit for their work at the time and up to the present day.

But, how far have we women come? This is a subject that I will explore ongoing, including some more digging around in the history of women in programming. Chances are, there are many more lessons to learn.

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About Kira Makagon

Kira Makagon is a successful serial entrepreneur and tech industry leader. A graduate of UC Berkeley with both an undergraduate degree in computer science and an MBA, she enjoys sharing her lessons learned from being a veteran “only woman in the room.”

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