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Meet: Jean J. Bartik, first programmers started out as "computers"

Photo of Jean Bartik

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Born December 27,1924 in Northwest Missouri in Gentry County, Jean grew up on a farm, the 6th of 7 children. As a child, she was always a good softball pitcher and, representing local teams, went around to other towns to play their teams. They had quite a following in those days, before there was TV or even radios in most people's homes. Pearl Harbor was bombed during Jean's first year of college at the Northwest Missouri State Teachers College. The male students were quickly drafted, so that Spring it was like a girl's school. The next year was a V-5 and a V-2 program, so she had most of her math and physics courses with the sailors. She was the only woman in the classes. She also worked in the bookstore so she had many friends.

No one ever discouraged her from taking math and science. Her brothers and sisters were good in math, so she was not considered remarkable in any way. Her athletic abilities were considered more remarkable. The Physical Education Departments tried to entice her to major in Phys. Ed. She was the only math major, and she took two courses by herself: Theory of Numbers and Modern Geometry. A man from South America took some math and astronomy courses with her, and they were the only students.

Jean finished her course work in December 1944, and she was under a lot of pressure to teach school because all the high schools were crying for math teachers. Her calculus teacher knew she wanted to get out of Missouri so she brought her an ad from one of her math journals seeking math majors to work at the University of Pennsylvania, but for Army Ordnance at Aberdeen Proving Ground. She applied and was hired in March of 1945. Their titles were "computers" with a sub-professional rating for the grand salary of $2,000/year with $400 more for working Saturdays. At that time, women weren't given professional ratings.

About three months after she arrived, an announcement came around that openings were going to be available for programmers for a new machine called the ENIAC. Five were selected, and Jean was the second alternate. The fifth woman selected decided she didn't want to give up her nice apartment, so she turned it down. The first alternate was on vacation and chose not to cut it short to go to Aberdeen to learn punch card equipment. I/O and the printer were punch card reader, punch and tabulator.

When they came back in August, we were given block diagram of the ENIAC and told to learn how to program it. No manuals, no teachers, and no ENIAC. It was downstairs, but they weren't allowed to see it until our clearance came through.

The ENIAC was 80 feet long and 10 feet high and was programmed by setting switches on the unit: accumulators, multiplier, divider/square rooter, three function tables and master programmer. They were all interconnected digit and program. It was a parallel machine and very difficult to program. In fact, they were the only group that programmed it in its original state. While it was being moved to Aberdeen, Jean formed a group at the University of Pennsylvania to change it to a stored program computer. The ENIAC went on to run at Aberdeen for 10 years and computed 100 scientific problems.

Jean went on to work on the BINAC and UNIVAC 1. She took 16 years off to have children and came back in 1967. At that point she worked in publishing about minicomputers and communications, marketing minicomputers, providing market support, running users' groups, doing competitive analysis, and back to publishing.

Right now, she sells real estate, plays quite a bit of bridge and keeps up with friends via e-mail

When she was a teenager Jean would have liked to have been in a larger place where there were more like-minded kids and more things to do. Of course, being so isolated, she read a lot and imagined even more.

Jean has always loved to say how much career planning she did. She just jumped at every opportunity and was ready to go on to the new. As she says,

I was just at the right place at the right time. It was divine providence or fate that selected me to be an ENIAC programmer. Betty Holberton quoted something interesting recently, 'Look like a girl, Act like a lady, Think like a man, and Work like a dog.' I was told I'd never make it to VP rank because I was too outspoken. The next generation would have more finesse than I. Maybe so, but I think men will always find an excuse for keeping women in their 'place.' So, let's make that place the executive suite and start more of our own companies.

Archived QuestChats with Jean Bartik


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