WestSouthwest: Women at the beginning of the computer age

Jan 14, 2014

Jean Jennings Bartik in 1946
Credit Photo provided by Tim Bartik

The ENIAC project, launched shortly after World War II, is seen as a key moment in the beginning of the computer age. 

Lost in the history of the ENIAC is the involvement of six women who helped program the new computer. There were no instruction manuals or books to show them how. The autobiography of one of those programmers, Jean Jennings Bartik was released in November. Bartik passed away in 2011, before Pioneer Programmer Jean Jennings Bartik and the Computer that Changed the World was published. 

Credit Truman State University Press

WMUK's Gordon Evans sat down with Jean Jennings Bartik's son, Tim Bartik, an economist at the Upjohn Institute for Economic Research in Kalamazoo. Kathy Kleiman joined the conversation by Skype. Kleiman is an Internet law and policy attorney at Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth in Arlington, VA. She is founder of the ENIAC Programmers Project and executive producer of a forthcoming documentary about the ENIAC programmers

Bartik says his mom was willing to take a risk to have an adventure, and move off the farm where she grew up in Missouri. He says it's hard "to convey her personality by remote." The Jean Jennings Bartik  Computing Museum is located at her alma mater Northwest Missouri State.  

Kleiman says the women who worked on the ENIAC did not get credit at the time. When Kleiman found pictures 40 years later, the women were not identified in the captions. She was told they were models standing in front of the machines, but Kleiman soon found out that the women played a significant role in helping launch the ENIAC. 

Bartik says his mom wanted women today to have role models in the computer industry. He says even today women still lag behind men in technology fields. 

Kleiman says women are involved at every level of technology, but are still not broadly represented. She says many women find themselves the only women in the room in computer and technology companies. Kleiman is also working on a documentary that includes interviews with four of the six ENIAC programmers, including Jean Jennings Bartik.  She says it is scheduled to be completed soon. 

In her book, Jean Jennings Bartik says she considered suing Auerbach where she worked after the ENIAC project. Tim Bartik says his mom had a good case for gender discrimination, but she was raising three children at the time. Bartik says his mom had to consider the damage that bringing a lawsuit could do to her professionally. 

Bartik says he remembers saying to his mom "how come no one else knows this?" He says more people should know the story. 

Kleiman says she had been taught that the history of computing is the history of men. Kleiman says she was shocked to learn that women had played such a significant role in the beginning of the computer age. 

Kleiman says the women involved in the ENIAC should be remembered for their role as programming pioneers. She says they helped make computing and programming more accessible. 

Bartik says the book and Kleiman's documentary should shed more light on the history of women's involvement in the computing age.  

Other links:

New York Time obituary on Jean Jennings Bartik in 2011. 

The book will also be available through Bookbug and the Kalamazoo Public Library