The First Computers Were Human (and Mostly Women)

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Not too long ago, computers were people. They were math wizards and savants — people with a natural talent with numbers.

Not only did they do the calculations and computations that machines do for us now, their work directly led to the invention of the digital computer as we know it today.

But much of their contributions to the field of computer science went unnoticed during their lifetime.

Because they were women.

Early on, Jean Jennings Bartik had shown a remarkable aptitude for mathematics. But instead of becoming a teacher like her mother and grandmother before her, Bartik had loftier goals.

She wanted to be a human computer.

Although most math oriented positions at the time were the exclusive domain of men, World War II had opened up opportunities for women that only a few years before seemed unattainable.

And so Bartik joined a squad of human computers at the Moore School at the University of Pennsylvania. Since this type of math work was considered clerical work at the time, most of Bartik’s colleagues were women.

And more than ever, these female computers were integral to the war effort

To accurately shoot an artillery shell depended on a number of factors — including angle of fire, range to target, windspeed and weather conditions. Without a personal computer on hand to calculate these ballistic trajectories, a soldier couldn’t be expected to do the correct math off the top of his head in the heat of battle.

So, they depended on firing tables.

Firing tables were essentially sets of pre-calculated trajectories that soldiers could reference so they could quickly fire upon their target, given almost any circumstance. Each table comprised around 1000 trajectories — each one hand calculated by a human computer.

But even with the mathematical strength displayed by Bartik and her colleagues, the US military wanted a way to calculate these ballistic trajectories even faster.

That’s when John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert came up with the idea of building an electronic, digital computer. Theoretically it would be able to calculate firing tables at an order of magnitude faster than any human computer.

This machine was called ENIAC.

Weighing close to 50 tons and taking up as much space as an entire house, ENIAC was one of the very earliest fully functional digital computers. Even though it operated with over 17,000 vacuum tubes and not transistors like today’s computers, ENIAC was still the direct ancestor of all the computers we see today.

When it first debuted, ENIAC revolutionized the kind of calculations we could feasibly do and drastically reduced the time it took to do them.

In just 30 seconds, ENIAC could complete more calculations than Jean Bartik could do in 30 hours.

But that didn’t mean she was out of a job.

ENIAC was designed to be programmable. Instead of focusing on just one task, ENIAC could be modified to calculate a whole host of different numerical problems.

But programming a computer back then wasn’t like it is today. The program had to be drafted on paper by hand before the electro-mechanical innards of machine were physically manipulated to integrate the problem and make the proper computations possible.

And the people best suited to program a digital computer were the human computers.

Mauchly and Eckert recruited Bartik and five other women to program ENIAC. Essentially, making Jean Bartik and her colleagues some of the earliest digital computer programmers.

They gained an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of ENIAC because they often had to physically crawl inside of the machine to workout bugs and replace blown tubes. As primitive as it might seem, Bartik and her colleagues basically invented the discipline of computer programming. The techniques they developed laid the foundation for almost all computer programming that came afterward

But by the time ENIAC was built and ready to go, the war was over.

But that didn’t make it obsolete.

A whole new war was just beginning.

In the desert of New Mexico, researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory soon seized upon the potential of ENIAC, and it was re-programmed to compute the parameters necessary to make the most powerful weapon in all of human history — the hydrogen bomb.

After ENIAC, Jean Bartik went on to help develop the next generation of digital computers, but soon her career as a computer programmer hit an impasse.

As the field of computer programming grew and the pay became more lucrative, more men became interested in it, pushing the early women pioneers out of the field.

Not only was Bartik replaced by the machines she helped develop, she was being denied entry into a field she largely established.

Her team’s role in the creation of ENIAC was largely ignored.

Even photos showing them working on ENIAC were disregarded. Because they were women, many assumed they were just models posing in front of the machine — not the team responsible for programming it.

In the past 30 years, the computer industry has exploded. Despite the dramatic increase in computer science related jobs, women graduating with a degree in computer science has plummeted to 18% from a high of 37% in 1984. Much of this gender gap can be attributed to the popular depiction of computer programming as a profession almost exclusively held by men.

A 2015 study from Accenture Research has shown that girls are much more likely to show an interest in computer science if introduced to the subject by a female role model.

And it hasn’t helped that for decades, role models like Jean Bartik went unrecognized.

This gender gap has negative consequences on the US economy as well.

Because the supply of computer science majors graduating each year cannot keep up with the staggering growth of computer related jobs in the US, companies are left with a personnel shortfall that they can never completely make up for.

Cutting out half the population from an entire area of expertise only compounds the problem.

Jean Bartik spent much of her later years advocating for the inclusion of women in computer science and technology. But she did not gain wide recognition for her work on the first digital computers until shortly before her death in 2011.

Today our computers are largely invisible, hidden within our cars, TVs, and our pockets.

A lot of the devices we use we don’t even think of as computers. We take them for granted. But behind every device is software using principles developed by a group of human computers who themselves were largely invisible and taken for granted.

But like the firing tables Jean Bartik worked on in the beginning of her career, the downward trajectory of women in computer science is another numerical problem. But in this case, the quickest solution will be achieved not by machines, but by who the next generation of human computers turns out to be.

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