Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Last of the First Computer Programers Dies, and, Suprise, She Was a Woman

Never heard of Jean Bartik, born Betty Jean Jennings? Neither had I until yesterday when I read her obituary in the Globe and Mail: she died March 23, 2011 at 86. She was one the six young women recruited to program the first computer, ENIAC (Electrical Numerical Integrator And Calculator.) Designed by guy engineers and commissioned by the US military, the machine wasn't operational until after World War II was over, but opened the way to our wired world.

"We had no manuals for ENIAC," she is quoted as saying. "We learned how to program by studying the logical block diagrams. What a blessing. From the beginning, I knew how computers worked. We gained the respect of the engineers from the beginning because we really knew what we were doing and we could debug better than they could because we had our test programs as well as our knowledge of the computer."

After the War she worked as a programmer for several years, but in her sixties she was pushed out of the industry, the Globe obit (which I can't find on the web) said. The obit quoted her son as saying that she ended her life selling real estate.

As I watched the YouTube interview I thought of another woman who left small town America to spread her wings and fulfill her promise during the middle of the 20th century: Jane Jacobs. Hats off to them...and to the many, many women born before who were never able to show their stuff.

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