Heroes

These 6 women got written out of tech history. They're finally being recognized.

The dawn of the Digital Revolution was ushered in by 6 women in Philadelphia in the mid-1900s.

These 6 women got written out of tech history. They're finally being recognized.

70 years ago, six Philadelphia women were recruited by the United States Army for a very special project.

In 1942, Betty Jean Jennings Bartik, Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum, Frances Bilas Spence, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, and Betty Snyder Holberton were chosen to work on a classified government project known as the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC.

Considered to be the world's first "general-purpose" computer, the ENIAC was built with the goal of more quickly calculating the ballistics trajectories of missiles during wartime.


Even though the women all hailed from mathematical backgrounds, they'd never operated such a massive computer before.

In fact, almost no one in the U.S. had.

So they started out with a three-month crash course in Aberdeen, Pennsylvania, where they learned the many different computing systems necessary to run the ENIAC.

Photo of "the world's first computer" via International Communications Agency/Wikimedia Commons.

Upon their return to the Moore School of Engineering in Philadelphia, the six women were thrust headfirst into the ENIAC program and given little more than a stack of wiring diagrams for the computer's many panels as their guide.

The ENIAC was equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors, and 5 million hand-soldered joints.

Weighing a few dozen tons and filling a 1,500-square-foot room, it was a monstrosity that was as physically demanding to operate as it was mentally tasking.

Working double and triple shifts six days a week, this ragtag crew of six female "computers" (which was a job title back then) lugged cables and trays between panels on the massive machine. Occasionally they even had to crawl inside it to fix faulty tubes.

"Betty [Holberton] and I were the workhorses and finishers, tying up loose ends," said Jean Bartik in a 2011 interview, echoing Holberton's notorious motto, "Look like a girl, act like a lady, and work like a dog."

It was exhausting, backbreaking work, but these six women helped to usher in the dawn of the Digital Revolution.

They were essentially the first computer programmers in the U.S.


Meanwhile, I still can't figure out how to hook up an HDMI cable to my TV. GIF via Computer History Archives, used with permission.

When the ENIAC was unveiled on Feb. 15, 1946, it was lauded by the press as a "Giant Brain" because of its otherworldly speed. It could compute complex mathematical equations up to 10,000 times faster than any other electro-mechanical machines in existence.

Of course, being that this was the 1940s, the revolutionary work of these women specifically was almost completely overlooked.

Despite debugging every last issue that the ENIAC faced and teaching the technology to their male replacements when they returned home from World War II, the women were treated as little more than models to show off the machine. In fact, they weren't even invited to the celebratory dinner that was held after the unveiling ceremony.

A utility model of the ENIAC. Photo by Keystone for Getty Images.

"We thought that was terrible," said Bartik in an interview with CNN. "It was not a secret. The only problem was nobody was interested. They didn't know anything about it."

Thankfully, these technological trailblazers are finally receiving their due credit ... more than 50 years later.

In 1997, all six women were inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame. That same year, Holberton received the Augusta Ada Lovelace Award, the highest award given by the Association of Women in Computing.

In 2011, the Philadelphia City Council officially declared Feb. 15 as ENIAC Day in honor of the group's extraordinary work, and just last year, the Holberton School, a project-based school for software engineers, was founded in San Francisco.

The long-unexplored story of the team's groundbreaking work was also brought to light in the 2014 documentary, "The Computers," thanks to the efforts of The ENIAC Programmers Project.

Another batch of female computer engineers. Photo from U.S. Army.

Anyone who owns a smartphone or computer owes a huge debt of gratitude to the work of these pioneering women.

But let's not forget that there's still progress to be made for women who work in technology, even now.

To this day, women still only account for a fraction of technology-based jobs, due in part to the ridiculous stereotype that they "just aren't cut out for it." Sadly, Google's 30% female employment rate represents one of the highest percentages in the tech industry — this despite a recent gender-blind study of GitHub coding suggesting that women measure up as slightly better coders than men.

To put it simply, diversity in business is good for business (duh).

A more diverse talent pool means a broader range of perspectives when it comes to problem-solving and innovation. Statistically speaking, women have also risen to become one of the most important demographic in the technology industry and users of a far wider variety of technology than their male counterparts.

A lack of diversity in tech can actually hurt businesses, according to a study published in McKinsey: "Businesses in the top quartile in terms of racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more like to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians."

We should already know this. Holberton, Antonelli, and four other women proved it over 70 years ago. Thousands of women are still proving it today.

And since this whole "technology" thing ain't slowing down any time soon, we're left with two simple options: We start giving women the recognition (and employment) they deserve in the tech industry, or we get used to "reprogramming" our smartphones the only way that most of us know how:

"Can you hang on a sec? I think you're BREAKING UP." GIF via "Entourage."

Courtesy of FIELDTRIP
True

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected diverse communities due largely in part to social factors such as inadequate access to housing, income, dietary options, education and employment — all of which have been shown to affect people's physical health.

Recognizing that inequity, Harlem-based chef JJ Johnson sought out to help his community maximize its health during the pandemic — one grain at a time.

Johnson manages FIELDTRIP, a health-focused restaurant that strives to bring people together through the celebration of rice, a grain found in cuisines of countless cultures.

"It was very important for me to show the world that places like Harlem want access to more health-conscious foods," Johnson said. "The people who live in Harlem should have the option to eat fresh, locally farmed and delicious food that other communities have access to."

Lack of education and access to those healthy food options is a primary driver of why 31% of adults in Harlem are struggling with obesity — the highest rate of any neighborhood in New York City and 7% higher than the average adult obesity rate across the five boroughs.

Obesity increases risk for heart disease or diabetes, which in turn leaves Harlem's residents — who are 76% Black or LatinX — at heightened risk for complications with COVID-19.

Keep Reading Show less

Empathy. Compassion. Heart-to-heart human connection. These qualities of leadership may not be flashy or loud, but they speak volumes when we see them in action.

A clip of Joe Biden is going viral because it reminds us what that kind of leadership looks like. The video shows a key moment at a memorial service for Chris Hixon, the athletic director at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in 2018. Hixon had attempted to disarm the gunman who went on a shooting spree at the school, killing 17 people—including Hixon—and injuring 17 more.

Biden asked who Hixon's parents were as the clip begins, and is directed to his right. Hixon's wife introduces herself, and Biden says, "God love you." As he starts to walk away, a voice off-camera says something and Biden immediately turns around. The voice came from Hixon's son, Corey, and the moments that followed are what have people feeling all their feelings.

Keep Reading Show less
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
True

Glenda moved to Houston from Ohio just before the pandemic hit. She didn't know that COVID-19-related delays would make it difficult to get her Texas driver's license and apply for unemployment benefits. She quickly found herself in an impossible situation — stranded in a strange place without money for food, gas, or a job to provide what she needed.

Alone, hungry, and scared, Glenda dialed 2-1-1 for help. The person on the other end of the line directed her to the Houston-based nonprofit Bread of Life, founded by St. John's United Methodist pastors Rudy and Juanita Rasmus.

For nearly 30 years, Bread of Life has been at the forefront of HIV/AIDS prevention, eliminating food insecurity, providing permanent housing to formerly homeless individuals and disaster relief.

Glenda sat in her car for 20 minutes outside of the building, trying to muster up the courage to get out and ask for help. She'd never been in this situation before, and she was terrified.

When she finally got out, she encountered Eva Thibaudeau, who happened to be walking down the street at the exact same time. Thibaudeau is the CEO of Temenos CDC, a nonprofit multi-unit housing development also founded by the Rasmuses, with a mission to serve Midtown Houston's homeless population.

Keep Reading Show less
Library of Congress

When we think about the era of American slavery, many of us tend to think of it as the far distant past. While slavery doesn't exist as a formal institution today, there are people living who knew formerly enslaved black Americans first-hand. In the wide arc of history, the legal enslavement of people on U.S. soil is a recent occurrence—so recent, in fact, that we have voice recordings of interviews with people who lived it.

Keep Reading Show less

The English language is constantly evolving, and the faster the world changes, the faster our vocabulary changes. Some of us grew up in an age when a "wireless router" would have been assumed to be a power tool, not a way to get your laptop (which wasn't a thing when I was a kid) connected to the internet (which also wasn't a thing when I was a kid, at least not in people's homes).

It's interesting to step back and look at how much has changed just in our own lifetimes, which is why Merriam-Webster's Time Traveler tool is so fun to play with. All you do is choose a year, and it tells you what words first appeared in print that year.

For my birth year, the words "adult-onset diabetes," "playdate," and "ATM" showed up in print for the first time, and yes, that makes me feel ridiculously old.

It's also fun to plug in the years of different people's births to see how their generational differences might impact their perspectives. For example, let's take the birth years of the oldest and youngest members of Congress:

Keep Reading Show less