Kirk L. Kroeker "Technology, too, obeys the law of responding, of answering a call at whose origin we are encountering so much static." -- Avital Ronell

 
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Remembering Jean Bartik

By Kirk L. Kroeker

(This article appeared in CACM, April 19, 2011.)

Jean Bartik ENIACJean Jennings Bartik, born Betty Jean Jennings in 1924, died in Poughkeepsie, New York, on March 23, 2011 at the age of 86. Bartik, notable to computer historians as one of the original six programmers on the ENIAC project, received several honors and awards in her later life to commend her for the pioneering work she did in a nascent field that would later be called software.

Hired as a "computer" in 1945, Bartik helped program ENIAC (an acronym for Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) to calculate artillery trajectory tables for the U.S. Army's Ballistics Research Lab, and in 1947 headed up the team to convert ENIAC into a stored-program computer. In addition to programming for ENIAC, Bartik worked for Eckert & Mauchly Computer Corporation on Binac and Univac I. Over the course of her career, she worked in various roles in technology—in programming, logical design, technical editing, and support—until 1985.

Before working on ENIAC, Bartik, at age 20, joined more than 100 women in the Army's Ballistics Research Lab project in Philadelphia to calculate firing tables with differential equations by hand. Recruited from that project in 1945, Bartik was hired as one of the original six ENIAC programmers, joining Kathleen Antonelli, Frances Holberton, Marlyn Meltzer, Frances Spence, and Ruth Teitelbaum. Until her death, Bartik was the last surviving member of the ENIAC women.

By working only from hardware and logic diagrams, Bartik and the other women taught themselves how to program ENIAC and its 18,000 vacuum tubes through an interface of hundreds of cables and switches spread across 40 control panels. On February 15, 1946, the Army unveiled ENIAC to the public in a ceremony that featured the women's successful ballistics application, which could calculate the trajectory of an artillery shell in some 20 seconds.

The women were not introduced at the event, and Bartik and her fellow programmers were not publicly credited for their work until many years later. While the ENIAC women have been associated with the project since the publication of the initial press photos, the women's work as programmers was mostly an untold story. Kathy Kleiman, widely credited as being instrumental in helping to make that story public, began to investigate the ENIAC programmers while doing research as a student at Harvard University in 1985.

Kleiman, now the director of policy for the Public Interest Registry, has been producing a documentary about the ENIAC programmers (http://www.eniacprogrammers.org), and has gathered some 20 hours of oral history interviews with the ENIAC women. "Jean was a powerhouse, full of ideas and opinions, and loved to share her memories about the early days of computing," says Kleiman. "As a personality, she was strong, she was powerful, and she had a lot of opinions that she shared with great conviction but also with great humor."

Kleiman says that the primary reason the ENIAC women did not get credit for their work was that the history of computing, as it had been written, was a history of hardware. "In the 1940s, when ENIAC was unveiled, the hardware alone was mind-boggling," says Kleiman. "No one even bothered to try to explain the software because it was a concept that was beyond people's understanding at the time."

As for the many awards Bartik had received, Kleiman says they cannot erase the initial oversight, but she notes that Bartik was thrilled, decades later, to be recognized for her work, and enjoyed being introduced as an ENIAC pioneer. "She was the super-pioneer; she reveled in that role in later life," says Kleiman. "Jean Bartik's contributions to computing are significant, and still largely undocumented."

Kleiman says still more work needs to be done in successfully detailing that early era in the history of computing. Kleiman is now looking for funding to complete her documentary about the ENIAC women. "I want Jean Bartik to be a name known to every girl and boy who studies computing," she says. "I want her to be a role model for the next generations. She's a real inspiration."

In 1997, Bartik was inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame, along with the other original ENIAC programmers. In 2008, Bartik, along with Bob Metcalfe and Linus Torvalds, received a Fellow Award from the Computer History Museum. In 2009, she received the IEEE Computer Society's Computer Pioneer Award. Bartik received an honorary doctorate in science from Northwest Missouri State University, her alma mater, which has named a museum after her.


Kirk L. Kroeker works in communications and has written extensively about the impact of emerging technologies.



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