Pioneering ENIAC programmer dies, aged 86
Saturday, 26 March 2011

Jean Jennings Bartik, who was one of the six "computers" chosen in 1946  to program  ENIAC, died on March 23rd 2011, at the age of 86.

Betty Jean Jennings was born on December 27, 1924 in Gentry County, Missouri and in the 1940s attended Northwest Missouri State Teachers College where she majored in mathematics.

On graduation Jean Jennings was recruited by the U.S. Army as a "computer" and assigned the task of hand-calculating artillery trajectories during World War II. This was exactly the type of task that the electronic digital computer conceived and designed by John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert and called "Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer" (ENAIC) and Jennings was one of six female computers who were selected to program it.



Betty Jean Jennings (left) and Fran Bilas with ENIAC


At the age of 20 she was the youngest woman to participate in the project and with the other programmers was given the job of breaking down complex equations into their smallest possible components so that the computer could make sequenced calculations at a rate of 5,000 additions per second, a speed which made possible calculations that previously  were simply too long to do by hand.

ENIAC weighed more than 30 tons and contained about 18,000 vacuum tubes. It recognized numbers, added, subtracted, multiplied, divided and a few other basic functions. Men had built the machine, but it was Bartik and her colleagues who debugged every vacuum tube and learned how to make it work.

Early on, they demonstrated to the military brass how the computer worked, with the programmers setting the process into motion and showing how it produced an answer. However the expertise of the women programmers went unacknowledged, indeed they were regarded as models whose purpose was to show off he machine. 

When Jean Jennings Bartik married John Mauchly escorted her down the aisle and it was at her wedding reception that John Mauchly first arranged a date with his future wife Kathleen (Kay) Antonelli who was a friend of Jean's and another of the six original ENIAC programmers.

Following the war, Jean Bartik went on to work on other early electronic computing devices, including the BINAC and UNIVAC, the world's first commercial computer.

Along with her fellow ENIAC programmers, Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Frances Snyder Holberton, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Frances Bilas Spence and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum, Jean Jennings Bartik  was  inducted into the Women In Technology International Hall of Fame in 1997. Further recognition of her contribution to computing came when the Jean Jennings Bartik Computing Museum at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, Missouri was dedicated in 2002. It houses one-of-a-kind ENIAC, BINAC and UNIVAC exhibits.

In a July 2001 article in the Northwest Alumni Magazine, Bartik said,

"I want to be remembered as a lucky person who was in the right place at the right time to be a pioneer in the computer business. The only characteristics I have are a sense of adventure, believing I can do anything and knowing to open the door when opportunity knocks."

Related articles:

Eckert & Mauchley and ENIAC

On This Day in 1946 - Eniac Unveiled


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