"Hacking grannies"? Or "talented programmers"?

An upcoming documentary tells the story of six women who programmed the world's first all-purpose digital computer.

By Catherine Price

Published December 4, 2007 6:36PM (EST)

I just stumbled across a story on ABC News whose headline caught my eye: "Granny Hackers Hit the History Books." I'm sorry, what?

Upon closer inspection it turns out to be a feature about a group of six women who were hired as computer programmers after World War II when the Army presumably ran out of male mathematicians. Their task was to program ENIAC -- the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer -- which was the world's first all-purpose digital computer. (Built for the U.S. Army's Ballistic Research Laboratory, its main purpose was to calculate artillery firing tables.) The women -- Jean Bartik, Marlyn Meltzer, Kathleen Mauchly Antonelli, Betty Snyder Holbertson, Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum and Frances Bilas Spence -- worked on the project together at the University of Pennsylvania (they'd answered an ad looking for "women 'computers'"), and at least one of them, Bartik, ended up having a long career in computer programming.

However, these women weren't recognized for their accomplishments for quite some time. According to ABC, they weren't initially invited to the 40th anniversary of the ENIAC project (though one of them made it onto the guest list as a spouse). In 1997 they were inducted into the Women in Technology Hall of Fame, but still, it's a good thing that Kathy Kleiman came along -- she's making a documentary about the women and their accomplishments.

A historian, Internet lawyer and former Wall Street programmer, Kleiman became intrigued by the women's stories when she was a student at Harvard and wrote a paper about women programmers. Initially worried that she wouldn't have enough material for a 40-page paper, she stumbled across a photograph of women in front of a huge computer. A computer historian told her that the women in the photograph were just "refrigerator ladies" -- i.e., they'd been put in the picture to make the computer look good -- but Kleiman thought the women looked knowledgeable, and decided to try to track them down. She conducted oral interviews with the women who were still alive, and is turning the material into a film called "Invisible Computers: The Story of the ENIAC Programmers."

I can understand why ABC gave the article a gimmicky title -- I clicked on it myself, after all -- but calling these women "granny hackers" seems a little dismissive of their accomplishments. (You'd never see a headline that said, "Gramps developed world's first computer," for example.) But I think it's great that these women will be featured in a film, not only because it will honor their accomplishments but because, with any luck, it will inspire a few girls today to pursue careers in computer programming -- a field that is currently hurting, in America, for kids of both genders.

Also, as a side note, I should point out a story in today's New York Times that would make the ENIAC programmers proud. It reports that girls won top honors in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology -- one of the nation's "most coveted" student science awards, which come with some pretty hefty scholarships -- for the first time. Congratulations to Janelle Schlossberger, Amanda Marinoff, Isha Himani Jain and Alicia Darnell!

Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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