On Feb. 14, 1946, John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert unveiled one of the U.S. Army’s best-kept secrets of World War II: the ENIAC. The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer was built behind closed doors in a restricted area at the University of Pennsylvania. But as the press shared the news, the story told omitted the work of six crucial players: the ENIAC Six.
Fran Bilas, Betty Jennings, Ruth Lichterman, Kay McNulty, Betty Snyder and Marlyn Wescoff had been selected to program the ENIAC from a group of female mathematicians working for the U.S. War Department. They had been hand-calculating ballistics trajectories—but the manual work of these women was not fast enough to meet the needs of the war effort. At the Moore School of Engineering, Mauchly and Eckert were at work on the solution.
The six women were plucked from their original assignment and put to work programming the ENIAC, which is considered to the first digital general-purpose computer. The only catch: The programmers initially lacked the security clearance to be in the same room as the ENIAC, so they worked from diagrams.
McNulty described the situation in the 2014 documentary “The Computers”: “We learned, you might say, from the back forward. We learned about the [vacuum] tubes first and then we came around and found out what the front did.”
Similar to the NASA women whose story was told in “Hidden Figures,” the ENIAC Six were called “computers”—and when the ENIAC was revealed to the public, they were photographed standing next to the computer like “refrigerator ladies,” the models who stood next to appliances in advertisements.
Learn more about the ENIAC Six and the documentary telling their story at www.eniacprogrammers.org.
Photo: Everett Collection / Shutterstock