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Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited
SLA Report: Ann Koopman
Computer Science Literature Round Table
The Computer Science Literature Round Table is usually a free-wheeling discussion meeting on hot topics in the field. This year, however, to take advantage of the year 2000 to cast a retrospective eye on the field, and in response to suggestions from participants to occasionally bring in speakers, Special Libraries Association arranged a special treat. Two of the programmers of the original ENIAC computer visited the session to talk about their experiences, much to the delight of the attendees.
Kay Mauchly Antonelli and Jean Bartik regaled their rapt audience with their memories of a time, over 50 years ago, when "computer" used to be their job title. As new college graduates in 1942, they answered newspaper advertisements asking for women with math degrees, only to find themselves embarking on what would become a grand adventure. Selecting from among the many memories is hard, but some highlights include:
In 1942 women were sought after for work on "numerical integration" for the Army. Men who used to do the work had left for the war theaters, but college-educated female math majors were rare in those days only three in Antonelli's class of 92 total math majors.
A new college graduate with a math degree would be hired at a salary of $1,620/year as an "Assistant Computer" if female, but at $2,400/ year as a "Mathematician" if male.
About 100 women worked as "computers", solving problems such as charting the path of a bullet when fired. Such a task occupied one person for 40 hours, using a desk calculator. The ENIAC proposal sought to reduce such calculation time from 40 hours to 15 seconds. ENIAC stands for "electronic numerical integrator and computer."
When the war ended, the Army dismissed most of the women working on numerical integration projects, retaining only a handful for ENIAC work.
ENIAC was programmed with switches. When women interviewed to work on it, they were screened for fear of electricity.
ENIAC contained over 18,000 vacuum tubes, of which about ten per day would blow out. The design of the computer was so conservative, however, that it called for the tubes to work at only 10 per cent capacity.
ENIAC was so top secret that the programmers were not allowed to see the machine until the very end of the project. They had to work from block diagrams and blueprints. But inventors John W. Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, Jr worked directly with the women on programming issues, teaching and sharing problems as they came up during the process.
ENIAC could be operated by a remote control. As it worked, the vacuum tubes would light up as they activated, and the program would gradually build the numbers as it calculated. This was so striking that observers would turn off the lights to watch the display.
When ENIAC was finally completed, in 1946, its first program called for it to calculate the feasibility of a trigger for the H-bomb, at the request of Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi.
Among the initial reactions to the device was the prediction that it would be useful only for solving mathematical problems, and that only about five machines would be required to serve the needs of the entire globe.
The ENIAC continued to run at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds for ten more years. Mauchly and Eckert went on to found the Electronic Computer Company (eventually becoming UNIVAC), where at one point it was estimated that over 100 inventions a day were coming out of their company. Most of the audience knew the history from there.
It is useful to remember how young the inventors and the programmers were at this point most were just out of college (Eckert was only 23) and Mauchly was a distinguished senior at only 35. Of course, when the ENIAC project was completed, Antonelli and Bartik moved on to other adventures. Antonelli married John Mauchly and raised a large family. The two have been speaking about their experiences only in the last few years, after a 1996 newspaper article highlighted ENIAC's 50th anniversary and rediscovered the people who brought it to fruition. Since that time, the pair has traveled extensively and described their work to many different audiences. They use photographs to illustrate their talk, but it is their memories and clear sense of humor, perspective, and joy that make them worth hearing. It was a privilege to hear them at this conference, and a moving experience for many in the audience.
Ann Koopman is JEFFLINE Editor, Scott Memorial Library, Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Ann.Koopman@mail.tju.edu