The Women of ENIAC

Author: Abhinav Gorantla

The work of many people remains forgotten in the world of computer science. Many other women in this field like Augusta Ada King, the Countess of Lovelace who was responsible for significant breakthroughs in this field remain forgotten. The first-ever loop was written by Lady Lovelace. She was equally responsible for the creation and documentation of the development of the Analytical Engine which is regarded as solely a Charles Babbage invention. The contributions of the six ladies involved in the ENIAC project- Fran Bilas, Betty Jennings, Ruth Lichterman, Kay McNulty, Betty Snyder, and Marlyn Wescoff had a similar fate. They are one of the many reasons we are now able to multitask in our computers. The changed the way computers work.

When the idea of computers was first conceived, people thought of a computer as this overly complicated set of gears whirring in a setup as big as a medium-sized room. Most of the computer prototypes could perform no more than a single task. These “tasks” most often included basic calculations or things like decoding messages. Until the year 1954, computers were nothing like our present-day workhorses. They were electromechanical monsters and composed of shafts with indentations to perform calculations.

The closest thing to the modern computer that was made before 1954 was the Z1 Calculator by German mathematician and computer scientist Konrad Zuse. This particular machine was also not truly regarded as a computer as it was mechanically driven by a motor. And a computer is “an electronic device for storing and processing data, typically in binary form, according to instructions given to it in a variable program”. So as the Z1 wasn’t essentially a fully electric device and could get nowhere near the electronic speeds, it was not the world’s first computer. Promising progress could be made with the Z1 only if the Nazis gave sufficient funding to Konrad for further development. The saddest part was that this technological marvel was destroyed in the World War – 2 bombings on Germany.

    As the war progressed, the British Secret service employed a special department comprising of masterclass mathematicians and statisticians to break the German Enigma machine. After an excruciating four years’ hard work, the team could successfully break the Enigma code. This gave birth to yet another “computer” called “The Bombe”. But this one also, like the Z1, wasn’t a “true” computer. The Bombe had numerous shafts that were working in sync to decode the German coded messages. In addition to the numerous mechanical parts in this machine, it couldn’t be reprogrammed to perform other tasks like simple arithmetic calculation. It was specifically designed to decode the Enigma.

    On the other side of the Atlantic, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania were building another numbers-crunching, mathematical monster. This machine was called the ENIAC. The sole purpose of this machine was to calculate the trajectories of the military artillery shells which depended on 29 different parameters like humidity, wind speed, etc. This meant that to only know which path a fired shell would follow required the soldiers to solve a 29-dimensional differential equation. This was not humanely possible on the field. Also for ENIAC to compute the exact values of these 29 variables, it was required to give it an input 29 times, each time with a punch card to give in the data to the computer. 

    Using punch cards to input data was considered an utter waste of time by the scientists responsible for the ENIAC project. So, they decided to recruit several dozens of women to perform tasks that were too insignificant for the computer. Little did these “scientists” know these women were about to bring a technological revolution in our world. The women recruited for the ENIAC project were later assigned the job of interchanging wires and switches on the ENIAC to enable it to perform different operations. During this time, this group of six young ladies realized that ENIAC could be used even more efficiently when a program was input in the form of punch cards and stored into the machine. In those days, every single step of the program required re-adjustment of switches and wires. The group of women decided to integrate a digital memory storage device into the machine to make things easier. They showed the scientific world the importance of software components. Their innovations made way to EDVAC which is the basis for most modern-day computers.

It is because of the trailblazing amount of work these six women did that we know computers the way they are now.

“Those who can imagine anything, can create the impossible.” -Alan Turing


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