Jean Bartik, 1924–2011

The woman who helped program an early computer

When the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) was unveiled in 1946, it was hailed as a miraculous machine capable of precisely calculating the trajectory of artillery shells. The press coverage focused on the hardware and the men who’d built it, ignoring the women who’d programmed it. Yet the magic of ENIAC lay largely in its software, and much of it was written by Jean Jennings Bartik, who was recognized only toward the end of her life as a programming pioneer.

Bartik was born in 1924, the sixth of seven children in a Missouri farming family “whose parents valued education,” said The New York Times. She was the sole math major in her class at Northwest Missouri State Teachers College (now Northwest Missouri State University). In 1945, one of her instructors spotted an advertisement in a math journal announcing that the Army was recruiting talented mathematicians for a project in Philadelphia. Bartik hopped the first train to Philadelphia as soon as she was accepted. “She wanted adventure,” said her son, Timothy Bartik, “and she got it.”

In Philadelphia, Bartik joined an all-female team tasked with “setting up” ENIAC, which was then portrayed as a prosaic business of plugging in electrical connections, said But in fact, converting mathematical calculations into electrical impulses decipherable by machine was a fiendishly complex task requiring extensive mathematical facility. Complicating the job was ENIAC itself, a temperamental prototype weighing 30 tons and containing about 18,000 vacuum tubes. The war ended before the machine could be put into service, but Bartik parlayed her experience into peacetime jobs programming two early business computers, BINAC and UNIVAC, and worked “in the fledgling high-tech publishing field.”

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Bartik stopped working in 1951 to raise a family with her husband, William Bartik, but returned to the computer industry in 1967. She received belated recognition for her programming in a recent documentary, Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of World War II. Her three children, she said, all inherited her flair for numbers.

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