#MySci411: Six Women Programmed World’s First Computer in Philadelphia
While the likes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs became household names for making computers a part of daily American life, their success was made possible in large part by the pioneering World War II era work by six highly-skilled women at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pa.
That first general-purpose computer – known as Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) – was developed at the university during World War II to help American military forces plan artillery attacks and to study the feasibility of the hydrogen bomb. The ENIAC was repurposed after the war’s end and introduced to the public in Feb. 1946.
Programming for the first ENIAC was conducted as a secret U.S. Army project by six highly-skilled women with extensive backgrounds in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Among the six programmers were Philadelphia natives Betty Holberton and Frances Bilas Spence. The programmers were themselves referred to by the Army as “computers.”
When the ENIAC was unveiled, however, the contributions of the six female programmers largely went unheralded and unnoticed. All six of the programmers have passed away, but recent documentary projects – including Top Secret Rosies by Temple University Professor LeAnn Erickson – have raised awareness of their work. The University City Science Center in Philadelphia honored the six women of the ENIAC in Oct. 2015 with induction into its Innovators Walk of Fame.
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