Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Jean Bartik and the (Almost) Lost History of the ENIAC

This post was originally made on my personal blog, The Female Perspective of Computer Science. I hope you enjoy it. --Gail

I first heard about Jean Bartik some time ago after a few Systers were lucky enough to attend an event with her at the Computer History Museum in California. I forgot about it for a while until the official Google blog made a post about the event. From there, I was able to watch a video (embedded below) capturing the informal conversation with Jean, and I followed a link to a website devoted to the ENIAC Programmers Project. I feel so privileged to get a glimpse into the amazing history of the six young women who programmed the ENIAC, but whom history almost forgot.

Nobody really knew much about the women standing in front of the intimidating 8-foot tall black metal machine that was the ENIAC; in fact, many were told they were just "refrigerator ladies" modelling for the cameras. Luckily, Kathy Kleiman didn't buy it. When looking for role models as she herself became a programmer, she discovered the truth and sought to bring the ENIAC programmers' stories to life. With the help of an award winning producer, these women's stories were recorded and are now being transformed into an inspiring documentary.

One of the many wonderful tidbits in the video above is a story about Grace Hopper, who we all know and love as the namesake of the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. As you may know, Grace developed one of the first compilers for a programming language. She was once having problems with a compiler and couldn't figure out what was going wrong. She asked Betty, Jean's pair-programming partner on the ENIAC, for some help.

Betty determined that the tape used to record data onto was the source of Grace's headaches. The tape would be used in one direction, then the direction would be reversed and data written again. The problem was that, even though the same amount of data is written in both directions, the tape didn't always end exactly where it started. Physical markers were used to indicate the beginning and had to be repositioned each time. Betty determined that Grace hadn't done this repositioning. Well, apparently when this problem was solved, Grace was ecstatic, and called Betty the best programmer she ever knew. :)

I think this video is a must see for every computer scientist out there, male or female. I know that I, for one, will be very much looking forward to the documentary when it's released.