Scientist of the Day - Jean Jennings Bartik
Jean Jennings Bartik, an American computer pioneer, was born Dec. 27, 1924. Having majored in math at Northwest Missouri State Teachers College in Maryville, Jennings was invited by the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania to join their ENIAC computer group in 1945. ENIAC was the world’s first general-purpose programmable computer. As the division of labor worked itself out, the male engineers took charge of the hardware, and the task of programming the computer was turned over to six women, with Jennings one of the six. They were not quite software engineers, these six females, for the programming was done with wiring boards and punched cards--one might better call them cardware engineers--but they came to understand computer operations much better than their male counterparts. In the first photo of ENIAC above (first image), Jennings, who emerged as a co-leader of the group, is at the left; in the second (second image), Jennings is at the back on the right, her hand on a switch.
Jennings moved on to work on the BINAC computer, the first to use stored electronic programs, and then the UNIVAC computer, in the late 1940s (third image). For the next thirty years, Jennings (now Bartik) and the other women pioneers were hardly mentioned in computer literature, and captions to the photos of ENIAC that showed the women at work, such as the two above, often described them as "operators," as if they turned switches off and on and did little more, when in fact they were responsible for all the programming. Proper recognition of Jennings’ computer pioneer status came only long after her retirement in 1985. In 1997, she was inducted (along with her 5 women ENIAC colleagues) into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame, and in 2009, Bartik received a special award from the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.
Perhaps the finest honor to come Jennings' way is a computer museum at her alma mater (now Northwest Missouri State University) named the Jean Jennings Bartik Computing Museum, which has exhibits of the ENIAC, BINAC, and UNIVAC computers. The Museum's website includes a number of photos of Bartik and the ENIAC team. Be sure to enter the Virtual Museum. The nicest thing about the entire saga is that Bartik lived to be 86, passing away in 2011, so she was able personally to receive the belated and long overdue recognition that finally came her way.
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to email@example.com.