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Review: ‘Proving Ground’ profiles first women computer programmers | Book Reviews


PROVING GROUND: The Untold Story of the Six Women Who Programmed the World’s First Supercomputer. By Kathy Kleiman. Grand Central Publishing. 320 pages. $30.

When the world’s first general-purpose, programmable, electronic computer, known as ENIAC, debuted in 1946, great credit was given to its creators, John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert Jr., among others.

But little attention is paid to the six women who play major roles behind the scenes, who spend months figuring out how to program a computer with little more continuity than large-scale diagrams, complex machine.

In “Proving Ground,” author Kleiman aims to correct that, tracking down four of the six women for interviews and returning them all to their rightful place in history. She explains how six young women from different backgrounds and regions of the US – Kathleen McNulty, Frances Bilas, Frances Elizabeth Synder, Marlyn Wescoff, Ruth Lichterman, and Betty Jean Jennings – were enlisted to create the first computer. program for ENIAC.

The women gathered after the shortage of male mathematicians during World War II caused the Army to search for women, placing a notice in newspapers: “Search for Female Math Majors,” and -come to college campuses.

Mathematicians are needed to calculate the ballistic trajectories of the Philadelphia arm at the Army’s Ballistic Research Laboratory based at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Aberdeen, Md.

The women used mechanical desktop computers – large machines with long buttons and gears – to make analog computations for ballistic trajectories that took into account variables such as distance, humidity, the weight of the shells and other factors. The calculation for one trajectory can take 30 to 40 hours.

During their downtime, the girls became close friends, exploring Philadelphia’s theaters and parks and attending dances held for soldiers stationed nearby.

Meanwhile, the Army built a top secret electronic computer aimed at speeding up calculations, called the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC. When completed, it was 8 feet long, 80 feet wide, arranged in a U-shape, and filled with vacuum tubes, cables, wires and switches.

As experts in ballistic trajectory, “ENIAC 6” was tasked with creating a program for ENIAC that could do the same calculations they did on desktop calculators. But in the absence of an instruction manual for the ENIAC or any existing programming languages, they had to invent the program themselves. They successfully created the ENIAC program that reduced the speed of calculating trajectories from 30 to 40 hours to a lightning speed of 20 seconds.

As early female programming pioneers Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper take their place in the annals of computer history, Kleiman shows us that there are other female programmers – like ENIAC 6 – who deserve to be remembered as well. acknowledge.

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