The History of Women Hackers

Because we are all feminists at the Digital Humanities Initiative, we are not only committed to outreach, problem solving, and good clean fun. We are also committed to digging up all the evidence we can find that computer technology has a long and diverse history.

Today’s gem tells the story of six female mathematicians recruited by the United States Army in the waning days of World War II. Hired to set up a computer called ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) at the University of Pennsylvania for a top-secret government project, the women realized that the machine was so top secret that no one seemed to be able to put their hands on the instructions for programming it.

So over the course of the next year they figured it out themselves. As Meeri Kim of The Philly Voice writes:

“These women were hired pretty much to set this machine up, but it turns out that no one knew how to program. There were no ‘programmers’ at that time, and the only thing that existed for this machine were the schematics,” said Mitch Marcus, the RCA Professor of Artificial Intelligence in the Department of Computer and Information Science at the University of Pennsylvania. “These six women found out what it took to run this computer — and they really did incredible things.”

They were: Kathleen Antonelli, County Donegal, Ireland; Jean Bartik, Gentry County, Missouri; and Ruth Teitelbaum, Marilyn Meltzer, and Betty Holberton, all from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Read their story here.