Six Women Who Built The Computer Industry And Why You Have Never Heard Of Them

Kay McNulty. Betty Jennings. Betty Snyder. Marlyn Wescoff. Fran Bilas. Ruth Lichterman.

Let’s pay homage to the unsung heroines of the computing industry. Without these six brilliant mathematicians and programmers, the world’s first digital computer would have remained a theoretical concept wrapped inside a very expensive hunk of metal.

The ENIAC machine, built at the University of Pennsylvania between 1943–1945 was a behemoth of vacuum tubes, transistors, cables and metal. Once built, it stood silent and brooding in a vast, air-conditioned room. While university professors had designed the idea of the machine and the military had funded it, there were very few people capable of programming it. That job fell to the six women named above.

Without a manual and at first, without permission to work on the machine itself, the six human computers carried out the groundbreaking maths and programming required to get the project off the ground.

When the ENIAC was announced to the world in 1946, amid much public euphoria, none of these women was mentioned. Their work was effectively buried. Much like the female code breakers at Bletchley Park who were fundamental to the war effort, this generation of trailblazers has been expunged from the mainstream narrative of computer science.

I only know this because I’ve just finished “12 Bytes”, the excellent series of essays from Jeanette Winterson that looks at the world of big tech from a non-technical, female perspective.

12 bytes front cover by Jeanette Winterson

You can find the full story about ENIAC and the other disappeared women in tech in The Future Isn’t Female but I would recommend the entire series as a hell of a read.

Now that I’ve discovered this horrible historical erasure, I’ve unearthed a series of articles on the subject.

Do you know of any more? Please share any further resources on this topic in the comments — and I’m very interested to hear other people’s points of view on this.

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Amy Streator Wilson

Interested in everything and everyone… yet hiking, travel, mountains, space, sustainability and the power of compromise really float my boat