Documentary film showcases women of ENIAC

Text by Jeanne Leong

When Penn unveiled the world’s first general-purpose electronic computer—the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC)—in 1946, there was no mention of the women who worked on programming the computer.

ENIAC
Programmers Jean Jennings Bartik, left, and Frances Bilas Spence work on the ENIAC computer. Photo by University Archives and Records Center

When Penn unveiled the world’s first general-purpose electronic computer—the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC)—in 1946, there was no mention of the women who worked on programming the computer.

Now, the story of the “ENIAC Six” is being told in a new documentary, “The Computers.”

ENIAC
Programmers Jean Jennings Bartik, left, and Frances Bilas Spence work on the ENIAC computer. Photo by University Archives and Records Center

The 20-minute film includes details of the programming work performed by Jean Jennings Bartik, Betty Snyder Holberton, Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Frances Bilas Spence, and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum.

Several of the women were interviewed for the film.

As a Harvard undergraduate studying computer science in 1986, the film’s co-producer and co-writer, Kathy Kleiman, discovered the names of the six women. She attended Penn’s 40th anniversary celebration of ENIAC, and when she saw a photo of the 8-foot-tall, 80-foot-wide computer with men and women in the photo, she noticed that the men were identified, but the women’s names were not listed. Kleiman says she was told that the women were models, but when she checked further, she learned that the women were mathematicians who programmed ENIAC to perform automated ballistics computations for the U.S. Army during World War II.

At the time, there were no programming tools, programming languages, or operating systems, so the ENIAC Six had to physically connect the units using cables and turn switches to make the appropriate settings. 

Kleiman spent 15 years piecing together their story. Originally, she was interested in learning more about the ENIAC Six because she had been looking for women role models when she was in college.

“We made this documentary to share the story and put it in context,” Kleiman says. “Hopefully, it will inspire young women and men to pursue computing.”

“The Computers” will be shown at Penn on Thursday, April 23, at 3 p.m. in Levine Hall in the Wu and Chen Auditorium. Following the film, there will be a question-and-answer session with Kleiman and some family members of the ENIAC Six, and a panel discussion that will be moderated by School of Engineering and Applied Science Professor Beth Winkelstein. The events are open to Penn faculty, students, and staff.

Originally published on .