Then and Now: Computer science's female pioneers

Do you think women were always a minority in computer science? Think again.

You may already know about computing pioneers such as Grace Hopper and Ada Lovelace, but in the early days, women were highly visible at every level of computer programming--including entry-level coders.

In fact, the word "computer" originally applied to the people (mainly women) who computed, by hand, the answers to complicated mathematical equations. During World War II, more than 80 of these women "computers" were hired at the University of Pennsylvania to plot ballistic missile trajectories using differential equations.

When Penn began work on the world's first all-electronic digital computing machine, six of those women--Frances Bilas, Jean Jennings, Ruth Lichterman, Kathleen McNulty, Frances Snyder and Marlyn Wescoff--were asked to become its programmers. The machine was the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC. Working in teams, the women programmed ENIAC by manually routing cables and setting switches and dials.

In this February 1946 photo from Penn's archives, Jennings and Bilas are shown preparing ENIAC for its public unveiling.

After the war, Lichterman moved with ENIAC to the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, where she taught programming, while Snyder and Jennings helped design and write code for the first UNIVAC. McNulty married John Mauchly, co-inventor of ENIAC and UNIVAC, and collaborated with him on program design.

Through the 1950s and 1960s, computer programming was a popular career path for women, but a variety of social, political and economic factors led the field to become increasingly dominated by men. Some of those same factors have also discouraged men and under-represented minorities from pursuing careers in computer science and information technology.

Since the 1990s, Carnegie Mellon University has made a concerted push to encourage young women and under-represented minorities to explore careers in computer science. In February, CMU joined 19 other universities and more than a dozen corporations to participate in the Pacesetters program recently launched by the National Center for Women & Information Technology. And every day, students and faculty are engaged in outreach and networking, both to attract people to computer science--and keep them engaged in the field.

You can read more about Women@SCS in the Spring 2013 issue of The Link.

(Photo courtesy University of Pennsylvania Archives, used with permission.)
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Jason Togyer | 412-268-8721 |