Celebrating 70 years of programming in April


On April 12th 1947, the world’s first general-purpose programmable computer ran the first code, giving birth to the programming profession.  This machine was called the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer or ENIAC for short.  It was developed and built at the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering and pieces of it are still exhibited there today.

Pieces of the ENIAC today

Two pieces of ENIAC currently on display in the Moore School of Engineering and Applied Science, in room 100 of the Moore building. Photo courtesy of the curator, released under GNU license. Copyright 2005 Paul W Shaffer, University of Pennsylvania.

ENIAC could be programmed to execute many operations that are now taken for granted in today’s programming languages, including loops, branches, and subroutines.  Hence, ENIAC was a rather big collection of arithmetic machines.  These machines had the required programs hard coded onto them with function tables each containing 1200 ten way switches.  The machine could easily fill a whole room and played an important role in the development of the Hydrogen bomb.

The complex task of taking a problem and using the computer to solve it was an extremely skilled job, which in 1947 fell to six American women.  The program would first be mapped out on paper and then mapped onto the ENIAC by manipulating switches and tubes. Consequently, if there was a problem or ‘bug’, then the ‘operator’ had to literally crawl inside part of the machine to find the loose joints or bad tubes.  The whole process of solving one problem could take weeks to reach a conclusion.


The ‘Original’ Computers

ENIAC main control panel image

Programmers Betty Jean Jennings (left) and Fran Bilas (right) operate ENIAC’s main control panel at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering. (U.S. Army photo from the archives of the ARL Technical Library)

The six women, who have sadly now all passed away, were: Frances Bilas Spence (1922 – 2013), Jean Jennings Bartik (1924 – 2011), Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer (1922 – 2008), Kathleen “Kay” McNulty Mauchly Antonelli (1921 – 2006), Frances Elizabeth “Betty” Holberton (1917 – 2001) and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum (1924 – 1986).

These operators were pioneers in manipulating the the machine and developing foundations for the programming languages we know today using only logical diagrams.

“They had no books or anything to teach us how to program it”  Jean Jennings Bartik, ENIAC Programmer.

However, when the ENIAC had been unveiled to the public in 1946 the women were never even introduced; they were kept behind the scenes.

None of us girls were ever introduced…we were just programmers.” Kathleen “Kay” McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, ENIAC Programmer.

It is only recently through the work of the ENIAC Programmers Project (founded by historian and author Kathy Kleiman) that the true extent of their work has been brought to light and quite rightly honoured.

Over our comparatively short history of 23 years, Carn Software has used various programming languages to deliver its products to keep up with a constantly evolving industry.

Without the ENIAC and the work of these six ladies, none of that would have been possible.

For more information about the project please visit http://eniacprogrammers.org




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