In 1942, the unimaginable happened. An advertisement for “Help Needed” appeared in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin: “Searching for Women in Major Mathematics.”
The ad was placed by the US Army, which was hiring women to work at the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering. Kathleen McNulty was only 21, a brand new graduate of Chestnut Hill College, but she didn’t know that something like this had never appeared outside the “Male Help Wanted” section of any newspaper before the United States entered World War II.
The war marked a turning point for black Americans, who were finally incorporated into the military after the war ended, and gay Americans, who first discovered that there were thousands more with the same secret desires. But no one benefited more from the war than the women, whose job opportunities doubled as millions of men left farms and factories to fight the Nazis and Japan.
Two weeks after her graduation, McNulty responded to the evening newsletter announcement. She was immediately appointed by the army. Two years later, she became one of six women to program the first modern computer. Their stories and the saga of this computer invention are the subject of this hoax book.
The writer, Cathy Kleiman, a law professor at American University, was working as a computer programmer in high school. When she was an undergraduate at Harvard University, she discovered two photos with two women standing in front of ENIAC, the 8-foot-high, 80-foot-tall giant invented by J. Presper Eckert and John Mowgli. From that moment on, Kleiman became obsessed with figuring out the identities of all the early programmers.
The result of this remarkable obsession was a 2014 documentary and this book, which blends social history with the major events of World War II and the biographies of these six outstanding pioneers to produce an irresistible story.
The others were alongside McNeillty Jean Jennings Partick, Frances Elizabeth Snyder, Frances Bellas Spence, Marilyn Weskov Meltzer, and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum. Among them were Catholics, Jews, Quakers, and Presbyterians.
They were all assigned to the Army’s Philadelphia Department of Computing and their title was Computer Assistant, meaning they performed lengthy calculations on old mechanical machines. It all started with a “sub-professional” or “scientific” rank just because they are women, but their starting salary of $1,620 (about $27,000 now) was twice that of any secretary.
Like all successful pioneers from previously discriminated groups, every woman had to be exceptional to succeed. For example, Marilyn Meltzer soon became famous for not making a mistake in any of her calculations.
They had to overcome every traditional sexist obstacle, including a “very familiar doctor” who performed the physical entrance on Jan Bartik and invited her to his house to complete it.
“The old farm boys taught me well to stay away from secluded places like haylofts,” Bartik recalls, so I refused to go to the doctor’s house. Remarkably, when you mentioned “what kind of lecherous was he,” the military stopped using it for bodily purposes.
How Eckert and Mowgli convinced the Army to fund the world’s first programmable electronic computer is the story that revives a long section of Kleiman’s book.
The Electronic Digital and Computer Incorporated (ENIAC) originally had one goal: to improve the accuracy of American artillery. Early in the war, the military discovered that it had to calculate distance, humidity, air density, temperature, and projectile weight. When troops took artillery units into the desert, the teams in the soil required a whole new set of calculations from Europe.
Before the invention of the new computer, women who programmed had to use desktop computers. They were “essentially driving the motion of the rocket forward through its arc in the sky, step by step, to its explosive end upon completion of its flight.” It was provided by ENIAC containing dozens of motors, thousands of relays, 2,000 evacuated tubes, and 200 miles of wire – “all to solve just one projectile path”.
ENIAC had a staggering 18,000 vacuum tubes, and the failure of any of them could ruin its accounts. One of the inventors’ eureka moments occurred when they realized that they could make the tubes more reliable by reducing their power.
One of the many amazing accomplishments of these pioneers was the system they developed for locating any faulty tubes in the massive machine. Because nothing like it existed before, the only way they could teach themselves to program it was by studying its schematics.
Someone remembers: “They gave us these big, big blueprints… and we were supposed to study them and figure out how to program them… Well, we obviously had no idea what we were doing.”
But Marilyn Meltzer “had a sense that she would pick it up and find out together.”
Incredibly, she was right. But since most histories of men written about this astonishing invention have overlooked the crucial role of these women, this book marks the first time they’ve all been given the massive recognition they deserve.