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Meet the 'Refrigerator Ladies' Who Programmed the ENIAC

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Library.UPenn.Edu

In 1945, Betty “Jean” Jennings wanted out of Missouri. A math student at Northwest Missouri State Teachers College (now Northwest Missouri State University), the last thing the farm-bred 20-year-old wanted to do was stay inside a classroom and teach. She wanted adventure. So when an advisor showed her a mysterious classified ad in a math journal soliciting mathematicians to come work in Pennsylvania, Jean jumped at the chance.

She applied for the job, was accepted, and hopped the next steam locomotive to Philadelphia. Little did she know that her leap of faith would help launch the modern computer. Although she and the women like her would be all but forgotten, Jean Jennings’s pioneering work helped create the technology that made the information age buzz.

Uncovering the Women Behind ENIAC

In the mid-1980s, Kathy Kleiman felt isolated and discouraged. A computer science undergrad at Harvard, she began noticing a dramatic drop-off in the number of women in her classes as the course level went up. It was not an auspicious sign for her future in programming.

“I found myself wondering if women had much of a role in the history of computing at all,” Kleiman says. “So I turned to history to see if I could find any role models.”

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In her research she stumbled upon a famous black-and-white photo of the first all-electric computer. Published in major newspapers across the country in 1946, the caption identified the men in the image, but no one else. Kleiman was perplexed. Why were the men in the photo the only ones identified? Who were the women?

She took her questions to a historian of computing, but it turned out no one knew who the women were. “I was told they were models—‘Refrigerator Ladies’—posing in front of the machine to make it look good,” Kleiman says. This was a common marketing tactic used to sell kitchen appliances like refrigerators at the time. “But they didn’t look like models to me. In fact, that was the farthest thing from the truth.”

The Birth of the Electric Computer

In World War II the Army was tasked with a Herculean job: calculate the trajectories of ballistic missiles—the arcs that artillery shells take from the time they leave cannon muzzles to the time they reach their target—by hand. These differential calculus equations (a PDF of those calculations can be seen here) were used to target the weapons, and as the firepower increased in the field, so did the demand for the ballistics firing tables. The problem was that each equation took 30 hours to complete, and the Army needed thousands of them.

So they started recruiting every mathematician they could find. They placed ads in newspapers, first in Philadelphia, then in New York City, then far out west in places like Missouri, seeking women “computers” who could hand-compute the equations using mechanical desktop calculators. They would need to relocate to the University of Pennsylvania.

“If they could calculate a differential calculus equation, they were hired,” Kleiman says. Male mathematicians were already working on other projects, so the Army specifically recruited women, even hiring ones who hadn’t graduated college yet. “Like everything else during early WWII, where they needed lots of people, like in factories and farms, they hired women,” she says. At the height of the program, the Army employed more than 100 women calculators. One of the last women to join the team was a farm girl named Jean Jennings.

But the calculations weren’t coming out fast enough, so the Army funded an experimental project to automate the trajectory calculations. Engineers John Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchly began designing the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC as it was called.

“Few in the Army thought the highly-experimental ENIAC would work, but the need was great and it was a time to experiment,” Kleiman says. That experimenting paid off: The 80-foot long, 8-foot tall, black metal behemoth, which contained hundreds of wires, 18,000 vacuum tubes, 40 8-foot cables, and 3000 switches, would become the first all-electric computer.

Making it Work

When the ENIAC was nearing completion in the spring of 1945, the Army randomly selected five women computers out of the 100 or so workers (later adding a sixth woman to the team) and tasked them with programming the thing. “The engineers handed the women the logistical diagrams of ENIAC’s 40 panels and and the women learned from there," Kleiman says. "They had no programming languages or compilers. Their job was to program ENIAC to perform the firing table equations they knew so well.”

The six women—Francis “Betty” Snyder Holberton, Betty “Jean” Jennings Bartik, Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum, and Frances Bilas Spence—had no precedent and only schematics to work with.

“There was no language, no operating system, no anything,” Kleiman says. “The women had to figure out what the computer was, how to interface with it, and then break down a complicated mathematical problem into very small steps that the ENIAC could then perform.” They physically hand-wired the machine, an arduous task using switches, cables, and digit trays to route data and program pulses.

“The ENIAC was a son of a bitch to program,” Jean Jennings has said.

The ballistic calculations went from taking 30 hours to complete by hand to taking mere seconds to complete on the ENIAC.

On February 14, 1946, six months after the end of the war, the Army revealed their amazing feat of engineering in a public relations extravaganza. (The ENIAC was not completed in time to use during World War II.) ENIAC was front-page news across the country, a milestone in modern computing, with praise going to the military, the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, and Eckert and Mauchly, the hardware engineers. The programmers, all women, were not introduced at the event. And even though some of them appeared in photographs at the time, everyone assumed they were just models. 

After the war, the government ran a campaign asking women to leave their jobs at the factories and the farms so returning soldiers could have their old jobs back. Most women did, leaving careers in the 1940s and 1950s and staying at home. But no returning soldier knew how to program the ENIAC.

“We were like fighter pilots,” programmer Kathleen McNulty has said. “You couldn’t just take any ordinary pilot and stick him into a fighter [jet] and say, ‘Go to it now, man.’ That was not the way it was going to be.”

“The Army didn’t want to let this group of women go,” Kleiman says. “All of these women had gone to college at a time when most men in this country didn’t even go to college. So the Army strongly encouraged them to stay, and for the most part, they did, becoming the first professional programmers, the first teachers of modern programming, and the inventors of tools that paved the way for modern software.”

The Army opened the ENIAC up to perform other types of non-military calculations after the war and Betty Holberton and Jean Jennings converted it to a stored-program machine. Betty went on to invent the first sort routine and help design the first commercial computers, the UNIVAC and the BINAC, alongside Jean.

Setting History Straight

In the 1990s Kleiman learned that most of the ENIAC programmers were not invited to the ENIAC’s 50th anniversary event. So she made it her mission to track them down and record their oral histories. Today, Kleiman, an Internet lawyer, is putting the finishing touches on her documentary and book on the six ENIAC programmers. The documentary, intended to inspire young women and men to get involved in programming, is set to be released in the coming months.

“They were shocked to be discovered,” Kleiman says. “They were thrilled to be recognized, but had mixed impressions about how they felt about being ignored for so long.”

Jean Jennings, the last surviving programmer from the original six, passed away on March 23, 2011 at 86. Northwest Missouri State University, her alma mater, named its computing museum in her honor.

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11 Fun Facts About A Fish Called Wanda
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MGM Home Entertainment

In 1988, the British heist comedy A Fish Called Wanda had audiences in the UK and across the pond rolling in the aisles. Thirty years later, the Oscar-winning ensemble movie about a clueless (but don’t call him stupid) weapons expert, a bumbling barrister, a quick-witted femme fatale, and a stuttering con artist remains a cult favorite. Starring John Cleese, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin, Jamie Lee Curtis, and of course, the eponymous fish, the film is packed with smart writing, silly slapstick, and some of the strongest comic performances of its starring actors’ careers. Here are 11 facts about A Fish Called Wanda for your unreserved enjoyment (just don’t ask us to repeat the part in the middle).

1. IT WAS DIRECTOR CHARLES CRICHTON’S FIRST FILM IN TWO DECADES.

Back in the 1950s, Charles Crichton was a famous director of Ealing Comedies—a series of comedy films produced by London’s Ealing Studios—who was known for his work on films like The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), Hue and Cry (1947), and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). By 1988, however, he hadn’t directed a feature film in two decades (though he had worked on TV shows and documentary shorts). He came out of semi-retirement to work on what would become his final film at the behest of John Cleese.

2. CRICHTON AND JOHN CLEESE SPENT FIVE YEARS WRITING THE FILM.

A Fish Called Wanda was years, even decades, in the making. Cleese and Crichton first met and began discussing ideas for a comedy heist film, inspired by The Lavender Hill Mob, all the way back in 1969. Though they parted ways professionally, Cleese continued to look for opportunities to collaborate on a film with Crichton. More than a decade later, he finally got his chance when he found himself working with Crichton on a series of business management training videos.

Though Crichton was already in his late seventies, Cleese managed to convince the semi-retired director to brainstorm ideas for a feature film with him. For the next few years, the two met periodically to throw around ideas and work on the script. All in all, the entire scriptwriting and pre-production process took more than five years and cost $150,000 of Cleese’s own money.

3. IT WAS INSPIRED BY THE EALING COMEDIES.

Unsurprisingly, A Fish Called Wanda was heavily indebted to the Ealing Comedies, especially Crichton’s own The Lavender Hill Mob, a heist comedy which starred Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway as a pair of bumbling bank robbers. Cleese, however, claimed the parallels between the Ealing Comedies and A Fish Called Wanda were unintentional, but embraced the comparison.

“I knew that my memory of all these great Ealing films was very present, although I wasn’t consciously trying to write an Ealing comedy,” Cleese explained. “But I do remember when we interviewed Johnny Jympson when we were looking for an editor, and Johnny’d read it, and he came in and sat down, and Charlie said, ‘What’d you think?’ and Johnny was almost nervous and he hemmed and hawed a little bit and then he said very uncertainly, ‘Well, it’s an Ealing comedy, isn’t it?’ and we both said, ‘Yes!’”

4. THE ACTORS HELPED SHAPE THEIR CHARACTERS.

Cleese encouraged Kevin Kline, Michael Palin, and Jamie Lee Curtis to contribute ideas and help develop their characters. Curtis, in particular, was responsible for major changes to Wanda’s personality. "She was a sexually brazen, cold-hearted manipulator, who simply wanted money,” Curtis told The New York Times. “I didn't find that real. I decided she didn't altogether know what she wanted, but finds a wonderful power in manipulating people and feels personal satisfaction in trying to fool them. She plays a slightly different role for each man, yet she enjoys being herself, and she's not cold-hearted, not vicious.''

Curtis told The New York Times she reveled in the rare opportunity to shape her own character: ''Most films, one person is in charge, and you're afraid even to raise your hand with a suggestion,'' she explained. ''That's frustrating if you're a bright person and trust your instincts. But this was totally a collaborative effort, and I'm afraid it's spoiled me.'' She was, apparently, so enthusiastic a contributor over the course of a two-week rehearsal period that Palin gave her a shirt that read, “Wait, I have an idea.”

5. KEVIN KLINE’S CHARACTER WAS INSPIRED BY A LOS ANGELES SELF-HELP GURU.

In A Fish Called Wanda, Kline’s Otto is a pseudo-intellectual who constantly misinterprets everything from the teachings of Buddhist philosophy to the writings of Nietzsche. According to Cleese, his character was inspired by the real-life self-help guru Zen Master Rama, sometimes called the “yuppie guru.”

“I got the real key to the character out of Los Angeles Magazine,” Cleese explained in an interview. “I found a double-page spread for a guru, and I’m pretty sure his name was Zen Master Rama, and he looked about 32 and very unsure of himself, and he had a funny sort of hairstyle like a dandelion at the end of September. But the key thing was the line across the top of this two page advertisement for the seminars he ran at weekends, which was ‘Buddhism gives you the competitive edge.’ And I thought this was unbelievably funny.”

6. CLEESE’S CHARACTER WAS NAMED AFTER CARY GRANT.

Cleese named his character Archie Leach after movie star Cary Grant, who was born Archibald Leach. Though Cleese’s bumbling lawyer has little in common with the famously debonair Grant, Cleese explained that he chose the name because he and Grant shared a hometown, and because it was the closest he would ever get to “being Cary Grant.”

7. THE ORIGINAL ENDING WAS MUCH DARKER.

A Fish Called Wanda started off as a much darker comedy, but test audiences in America were apparently uncomfortable with the film’s cruelty, and lack of romantic payoff, so Crichton and his cast went in for a few re-shoots. In addition to softening Palin’s character a bit, they ended up re-shooting the film’s ending three times.

“We played the whole movie with this very sort of dark intent—it was a very black comedy—and of course, when they tested the movie in America, it tested very funny, except that people didn’t like that there was no real love story,” Curtis said, further explaining:

“The original ending of the movie was much darker. The costume designer and I had a really great time costuming this character, and in a department store in London on sale, we found a pair of shark shoes, and we bought them because we just thought, ‘Well, she’s just a shark.’ And we wore them in that last scene, and literally the last shot of the movie was going down my leg and freeze framing on the shark shoe. And right then, you knew she was going to take him for everything. The minute they got off the plane, she was going to bop him on the head, take the stuff, and leave.”

8. CLEESE CUT A BIG CHUNK OF THE CATHCART TOWERS SCENE.

In addition to changing the ending, Cleese cut several minutes from the film’s penultimate scene, in which Archie tries to get the stuttering Ken (Palin) to telling him where Wanda, Otto, and the diamonds are. Ken, whose stutter gets worse under pressure, can’t seem to utter the two words “Cathcart Towers.”

Initially, the scene was a Monty Python-esque series of increasingly absurd stunts—Ken attempting to sing the words (which remains in the final film), Archie trying to feed a tissue through a typewriter, Ken writing in toothpaste on a window—but Cleese worried the scene, which arrives at the climax of the film, was overly long and dragging the plot down, and so deleted most of it.

9. ONE AUDIENCE MEMBER LAUGHED HIMSELF TO DEATH.

Ole Bentzen, a Belgian audience member, was so tickled by the scene in which Ken has French fries stuck up his nose, that he actually laughed himself to death. The scene reminded him of a similar experience at a family dinner, in which his family had shoved cauliflower up their noses to great comic effect. He began laughing so hard, his heart rate escalated dangerously, causing a fatal heart attack.

10. IT WAS NOMINATED FOR THREE OSCARS.

Comedy movies rarely fare well at the Oscars, but A Fish Called Wanda was an exception. The film was nominated for three awards: for Best Original Screenplay (for Cleese and Crichton), Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor for Kevin Kline, who took home the statuette.

11. IT WAS THE TOP VIDEO RENTAL OF 1989.

A Fish Called Wanda beat a number of higher-budget blockbuster movies, including Die Hard (1988) and Coming to America (1988), as well as the Oscar-winning Rain Man (1988), to become the top video rental of 1989. Its success was due, in part, to an advertising partnership with Cadbury Schweppes, which plastered grocery stores for weeks with ads for the film.

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