The first programmers? Women
The low participation of women in computer science cannot be explained by their "delayed" introduction to computers, as a popular assumption sometimes asserts.
Consider this: The first computers were people, not machines — and they were women. Hundreds of women "computers" manually computed figures for artillery firing tables during World War II. Six women were specifically chosen to program solutions on the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer), built at the University of Pennsylvania, and launched in 1946.
Men built the hardware of ENIAC, and the women — whom today would be called programmers — wired by hand the different electronic components of the room-sized machine that were needed to solve differential equations that calculated shell trajectories. Without the women physically connecting the computational elements, ENIAC was limited to doing addition blazingly fast, multiplication and division a bit slower, and a slow extraction of square roots.
Said the University of Minnesota's Thomas Misa, a historian of computer technology who heads the Charles Babbage Institute: "We might think of computing as being masculine, or male, but in the 1940s and 50s — whatever our stereotype — there were surprisingly large numbers of women who played key roles in computing."
The women who manipulated ENIAC's cables and patch cords, such as Kay McNulty, Betty Snyder, Betty Jean Jennings and Fran Bilas, were for many decades absent from popular discussions of computer history. "Until about 15 years ago, these early pioneers in computing were almost invisible," Misa said. "But now, we can recognize both the hardware achievement of the men who built ENIAC, and the programming achievements of these women."
Yet these extraordinary women were misrepresented. While their male colleagues became famous names in the computing world, the women were given short shrift and collectively referred to as "the ENIAC girls." Their role was seen as so secondary that media at the time neglected to mention them in stories about the computer. — Anne Brataas
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