It sounds like something from a movie: A farm girl born in 1924 grows up to become one of the world’s first computer programmers.
But this actually was the true story of Northwest Missouri native Jean Jennings Bartik, a member of the six-woman team that programmed the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer (ENIAC) in the 1940s. This endeavor funded by the United States Army was the first successful, programmable, electronic computer — yet for years, little attention was given to Ms. Jennings Bartik and the other women behind it.
“Unfortunately, by the late 1950s, Jean as well as the other five female programmers had literally been forgotten by history and those who wrote history books,” Kim Todd, the assistant director of the Jean Jennings Bartik Computing Museum at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, Mo., says. “She and the other women remained in obscurity until 1996, when their contributions to the early field of computing were rediscovered. In short, they were victims of the gender discrimination of their time.”
Ms. Todd is a co-editor of Ms. Jennings Bartik’s recently published autobiography, “Pioneer Programmer: Jean Jennings Bartik and the Computer that Changed the World.” She worked on it with her from 2002 until Ms. Jennings Bartik passed away in 2011, shortly after completing the book. Ms. Todd notes that despite having won a number of awards later in life — including the 1997 Women in Technology International Hall of Fame Award and the 2008 Computer Pioneer Award — Ms. Jennings Bartik remains relatively unknown in her home state.
Ms. Todd hopes “Pioneer Programmer” will help change that and will put a spotlight on others who deserve it, as well.
“Jean’s autobiography is the only written account by one of the original six ENIAC female programmers,” she adds, “and it exposes the myths about the computer’s origin and properly credits those who began the computing innovations that now shape our daily lives.”
In her autobiography, Ms. Jennings Bartik shares not only about the history-making stretch of time she spent working at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia but also about her life before — which included earning a bachelor’s degree in mathematics at Northwest Missouri State Teachers College — and her career afterward in the computer industry.
Jennifer Light, an early reviewer of the book and an associate professor of communication studies, history and sociology at Northwestern University, notes that Ms. Jennings Bartik’s sharing of her experience gives insight into what it was like “to be a woman at the dawn of a new field.”
“It’s a wonderful book,” Ms. Light adds. “To date, there have been scattered efforts to collect reminiscences from female computing pioneers; (Jennings Bartik’s) memoir goes well beyond them in its comprehensiveness and depth. ... I had the great fortune to meet the author while she was still alive, and her electric personality comes through in her writing.”
Another early reader of the book was Bill Mauchly, the son of Kathleen Mauchly, another of the six female programmers. He notes that even after his mother’s death, he stayed in touch with Ms. Jennings Bartik. What makes her book special, he adds, is the way in which it shows “she didn’t tone herself down to fit in.”
“It’s just plain fun to follow this super smart Midwestern girl as she dives into the scene, at the birthplace of electronic computers, and learns to swim,” he adds. “ ... I have a shelf of books about the history of computers, but none of them really give you any feeling for day-to-day experience of that era or the personalities of the people involved. ‘Pioneer Programmer’ is full of that — full of life.”
“Pioneer Programmer” is available from its publisher, Truman State Press, as well as from Amazon and Barnes and Noble. And the sales from the book (aside from those entitled to the publisher) will go to a good cause: a scholarship in Ms. Jennings Bartik’s name to help women pursue careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. (Anyone who would like to donate directly to this fund can do so by sending a check to the Office of University Advancement, Northwest Missouri State University, 800 University Dr., Maryville, MO 64468 or by contributing online at www.nwmissouri.edu/alumni/giving/onlinegiving.htm. In either case, please designate that the donation is for the Jean Jennings Bartik Scholarship for Women in STEM.)
“It was an honor to co-edit her autobiography,” Ms. Todd notes, “and I truly think readers will find her story fascinating.”