In 1942, the unthinkable happened. This “request for help” ad appeared in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin: “Looking for Women Math Majors.”
The ad was placed by the US Army, which was hiring women to work at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. Kathleen McNulty was just 21, a brand new graduate of Chestnut Hill College, but she knew nothing like this had ever appeared outside the “Male Help Wanted” section of any newspaper before the States States do not enter World War II.
The war was transformative for black Americans, who were eventually drafted into the military after the war ended, and for gay Americans, who discovered for the first time that there were thousands more with the same secret desires. But no one profited more from the war than women, whose career opportunities exploded as millions of men left farms and factories to fight the Nazis and Japan.
Two weeks after graduating, McNulty responded to this Evening Bulletin ad. She was immediately engaged by the army. A few years later, she became one of six women who would program the first modern computer. Their stories and the saga of the invention of this computer are the subjects of this enticing book.
The author, Kathy Kleiman, now a law professor at American University, was a computer programmer in high school. As an undergraduate at Harvard, she discovered two photos of women standing in front of the Eniac, the 8-foot-tall, 80-foot-long monster invented for the military by J Presper Eckert and John Mauchly. From this point on, Kleiman became obsessed with learning the identities of all the early female programmers.
The result of this magnificent obsession was a documentary in 2014 and this book, which blends social history with major events of World War II and the biographies of these six remarkable pioneers to produce a compelling narrative.
Others besides McNulty were Jean Jennings Bartik, Frances Elizabeth Snyder, Frances Bilas Spence, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum. Among them were a Catholic, two Jews, a Quaker and a Presbyterian.
They were all hired for the Philadelphia Computer Section of the Army and their title was Computer Assistant, which meant they performed long calculations on old-fashioned mechanical machines. It all started with the rank of “sub-professional” or “sub-scientist” just because they were women, but their starting salary of $1,620 (about $27,000 now) was double that of n any secretary.
Like all successful trailblazers in previously discriminated groups, each of the women had to be exceptional to succeed. Marlyn Meltzer, for example, quickly became famous for never getting any of her calculations wrong.
They had to overcome all the traditional gender barriers, including an “overly familiar doctor” who performed Jean Bartik’s physical exam and invited her to his home to complete it.
“The old farm boys had taught me well to stay out of secluded places like haylofts,” Bartik recalls, so she refused to go to the doctor. Remarkably, when she reported “what kind of lewd he was”, the military stopped using him for medical examinations.
How Eckert and Mauchly convinced the military to fund the world’s first all-electronic programmable computer is the story that drives a long section of Kleiman’s book.
The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (Eniac) originally had one goal: to improve the accuracy of American artillery. At the beginning of the war, the army realized that it had to take into account distance, humidity, air density, temperature and the weight of the shell. When troops took artillery units into the desert, the difference in soil from Europe required a whole new set of calculations.
Before the invention of the new computer, the women who programmed it had to use desk calculators. They were “essentially pushing the missile’s motion forward through its arc in the sky, step by step, to its explosive end at the end of its journey.” A precursor to the Eniac had dozens of motors, thousands of relays, 2,000 vacuum tubes and 200 miles of wire – “all to solve a single ballistic trajectory”.
The Eniac had an impressive number of 18,000 vacuum tubes, and the failure of one of them could ruin its calculations. One of the inventors’ eureka moments came when they realized they could make tubes more reliable by underpowering them.
One of the many amazing achievements of these pioneering women was the system they developed to identify the location of any faulty tubes within the huge machine. And because nothing like it had ever existed before, the only way for them to learn how to program it was to study its blueprints.
“They gave us these big block diagrams…and we were supposed to study them and figure out how to program them…Well, obviously we had no idea what we were doing,” one recalled. ‘them.
But Marlyn Meltzer “felt they were going to fumble and figure it out together”.
Incredibly, she was right. But because most of the stories written by men about this incredible invention have omitted the crucial role of these women, this book marks the first time they have all been given the gigantic credit they deserve.