The New York Times Magazine last week printed a wonderful long article on the history of women as computer programmers: “The Secret History of Women in Coding”.
A great part of the article is the description of the first ENIAC programming team.
When the time came to hire technicians to write instructions for the Eniac, it made sense, to the men in charge, to pick an all-female team: Kathleen McNulty, Jean Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Frances Bilas and Ruth Lichterman. The men would figure out what they wanted Eniac to do; the women “programmed” it to execute the instructions.
“We could diagnose troubles almost down to the individual vacuum tube,” Jennings later told an interviewer for the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. Jennings, who grew up as the tomboy daughter of low-income parents near a Missouri community of 104 people, studied math at college. “Since we knew both the application and the machine, we learned to diagnose troubles as well as, if not better than, the engineer.”
The Eniac women were among the first coders to discover that software never works right the first time — and that a programmer’s main work, really, is to find and fix the bugs. Their innovations included some of software’s core concepts. Betty Snyder realized that if you wanted to debug a program that wasn’t running correctly, it would help to have a “break point,” a moment when you could stop a program midway through its run. To this day, break points are a key part of the debugging process.
This is a nice piece to read in combination with the story earlier this month about women who contributed to papers in genetics during the 1970s and 1980s who were not given coauthorships but were listed in acknowledgements: “The Women Who Contributed to Science but Were Buried in Footnotes”.
Over the past few years, a team of students led by Emilia Huerta-Sánchez from Brown University and Rori Rohlfs from San Francisco State University has been searching through two decades’ worth of acknowledgments in genetics papers and discovering women who were never given the credit that would be expected for today’s researchers. They identified dozens of female programmers who made important but unrecognized contributions. Some were repeatedly thanked in the acknowledgments of several papers, but were never recognized as authors. They became literal footnotes in scientific history, despite helping make that history.