Jean Bartik, Pioneer Computer Programmer

Illustration for article titled Jean Bartik, Pioneer Computer Programmer

When the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer was introduced in 1946 as a tool for calculating the trajectory of artillery shells, it made headlines nationwide as the first all-electronic computer. But there was little mention of Jean Jennings Bartik and the other women who programmed the machine, charting new territory by converting math into a nascent machine language.

Bartik, who died last month and is on the right in the above photo, graduated from Northwest Missouri State University (then Northwest Missouri State Teachers College) with a degree in math and responded to an Army ad for a wartime project at the University of Pennsylvania in 1945. There, along with Frances Elizabeth Holberton, she lead a small team of women programmers at a time when no one even really knew what programming was.

The ENIAC, which used thousands of vacuum tubes, diodes, relays, resistors and capacitors to perform complex arithmetic calculations, was a thousand times faster than the part-electronic, part-mechanical machines that preceded it. Bartik and her team developed the system for translating those mathematical problems into a configuration for the ENIAC's myriad cables and switches.


Bartik worked on the UNIVAC, an early commercial computer, throughout the rest of the decade, leaving the industry in 1951 and returning to work as a programmer from 1967 into the mid-80s, when she was laid off. She worked as a real estate agent for the next 25 years, unable to find work in programming, though in recent years she and her team have rightfully been recognized as pioneers by the computer science community. The ENIAC represented an unparalleled jump computational power—one that no breakthrough has matched since. Jean Bartik and the rest of the ENIAC women were instrumental in making that historic leap. [ENIAC, NYT, Image: Northwest Missouri State University and the Jean Jennings Bartik Computing Museum]

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Thanks for posting this, Kyle. It's all news to me.