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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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10 Things You Might Not Know About Little Women
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Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is one of the world's most beloved novels, and now—nearly 150 years after its original publication—it's capturing yet another generation of readers, thanks in part to Masterpiece's new small-screen adaptation. Whether it's been days or years since you've last read it, here are 10 things you might not know about Alcott's classic tale of family and friendship.

1. LOUISA MAY ALCOTT DIDN'T WANT TO WRITE LITTLE WOMEN.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Louisa May Alcott was writing both literature and pulp fiction (sample title: Pauline's Passion and Punishment) when Thomas Niles, the editor at Roberts Brothers Publishing, approached her about writing a book for girls. Alcott said she would try, but she wasn’t all that interested, later calling such books “moral pap for the young.”

When it became clear Alcott was stalling, Niles offered a publishing contract to her father, Bronson Alcott. Although Bronson was a well-known thinker who was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, his work never achieved much acclaim. When it became clear that Bronson would have an opportunity to publish a new book if Louisa started her girls' story, she caved in to the pressure.

2. LITTLE WOMEN TOOK JUST 10 WEEKS TO WRITE.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott began writing the book in May 1868. She worked on it day and night, becoming so consumed with it that she sometimes forgot to eat or sleep. On July 15, she sent all 402 pages to her editor. In September, a mere four months after starting the book, Little Women was published. It became an instant best seller and turned Alcott into a rich and famous woman.

3. THE BOOK AS WE KNOW IT WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN TWO PARTS.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

The first half was published in 1868 as Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The Story Of Their Lives. A Girl’s Book. It ended with John Brooke proposing marriage to Meg. In 1869, Alcott published Good Wives, the second half of the book. It, too, only took a few months to write.

4. MEG, BETH, AND AMY WERE BASED ON ALCOTT'S SISTERS.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Meg was based on Louisa’s sister Anna, who fell in love with her husband John Bridge Pratt while performing opposite him in a play. The description of Meg’s wedding in the novel is supposedly based on Anna’s actual wedding.

Beth was based on Lizzie, who died from scarlet fever at age 23. Like Beth, Lizzie caught the illness from a poor family her mother was helping.

Amy was based on May (Amy is an anagram of May), an artist who lived in Europe. In fact, May—who died in childbirth at age 39—was the first woman to exhibit paintings in the Paris Salon.

Jo, of course, is based on Alcott herself.

5. LIKE THE MARCH FAMILY, THE ALCOTTS KNEW POVERTY.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Bronson Alcott’s philosophical ideals made it difficult for him to find employment—for example, as a socialist, he wouldn't work for wages—so the family survived on handouts from friends and neighbors. At times during Louisa’s childhood, there was nothing to eat but bread, water, and the occasional apple.

When she got older, Alcott worked as a paid companion and governess, like Jo does in the novel, and sold “sensation” stories to help pay the bills. She also took on menial jobs, working as a seamstress, a laundress, and a servant. Even as a child, Alcott wanted to help her family escape poverty, something Little Women made possible.

6. ALCOTT REFUSED TO HAVE JO MARRY LAURIE.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott, who never married herself, wanted Jo to remain unmarried, too. But while she was working on the second half of Little Women, fans were clamoring for Jo to marry the boy next door, Laurie. “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only aim and end of a woman’s life," Alcott wrote in her journal. "I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.”

As a compromise—or to spite her fans—Alcott married Jo to the decidedly unromantic Professor Bhaer. Laurie ends up with Amy.

7. THERE ARE LOTS OF THEORIES ABOUT WHO LAURIE WAS BASED ON.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

People have theorized Laurie was inspired by everyone from Thoreau to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. In 1865, while in Europe, Alcott met a Polish musician named Ladislas Wisniewski, whom Alcott nicknamed Laddie. The flirtation between Laddie and Alcott culminated in them spending two weeks together in Paris, alone. According to biographer Harriet Reisen, Alcott later modeled Laurie after Laddie.

How far did the Alcott/Laddie affair go? It’s hard to say, as Alcott later crossed out the section of her diary referring to the romance. In the margin, she wrote, “couldn’t be.”

8. YOU CAN STILL VISIT ORCHARD HOUSE, WHERE ALCOTT WROTE LITTLE WOMEN.

Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts was the Alcott family home. In 1868, Louisa reluctantly left her Boston apartment to write Little Women there. Today, you can tour this house and see May’s drawings on the walls, as well as the small writing desk that Bronson built for Louisa to use.

9. LITTLE WOMEN HAS BEEN ADAPTED A NUMBER OF TIMES.

In addition to a 1958 TV series, multiple Broadway plays, a musical, a ballet, and an opera, Little Women has been made into more than a half-dozen movies. The most famous are the 1933 version starring Katharine Hepburn, the 1949 version starring June Allyson (with Elizabeth Taylor as Amy), and the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder. Later this year, Clare Niederpruem's modern retelling of the story is scheduled to arrive in movie theaters. It's also been adapted for the small screen a number of times, most recently for PBS's Masterpiece, by Call the Midwife creator Heidi Thomas.

10. IN 1980, A JAPANESE ANIME VERSION OF LITTLE WOMEN WAS RELEASED.

In 1987, Japan made an anime version of Little Women that ran for 48 half-hour episodes. Watch the first two episodes above.

Additional Resources:
Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography; Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women; Louisa May Alcott's Journals; Little Women; Alcott Film; C-Span; LouisaMayAlcott.org.

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Hawaii's Kilauea Volcano Is Causing Another Explosive Problem: Laze
Mario Tama, Getty Images
Mario Tama, Getty Images

Rivers of molten rock aren't the only thing residents near Hawaii's Kilauea volcano have to worry about. Lava from recent volcanic activity has reached the Pacific Ocean and is generating toxic, glass-laced "laze," according to Honolulu-based KITV. Just what is this dangerous substance?

Molten lava has a temperature of about 2000°F, while the surrounding seawater in Hawaii is closer to 80°F. When this super-hot lava hits the colder ocean, the heat makes the water boil, creating powerful explosions of steam, scalding hot water, and projectile rock fragments known as tephra. These plumes are called lava haze, or laze.

Though it looks like regular steam, laze is much more dangerous. When the water and lava combine, and hot lava vaporizes seawater, a series of reactions causes the formation of toxic gas. Chloride from the sea salt mixes with hydrogen in the steam to create a dense, corrosive mixture of hydrochloric acid. The vapor forms clouds that then turn into acid rain.

Laze blows out of the ocean near a lava flow
USGS

That’s not the only danger. The lava cools down rapidly, forming volcanic glass—tiny shards of which explode into the air along with the gases.

Even the slightest encounter with a wisp of laze can be problematic. The hot, acidic mixture can irritate the skin, eyes, and respiratory system. It's particularly hazardous to those with breathing problems, like people with asthma.

In 2000, two people died in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park from inhaling laze coming from an active lava flow.

The problem spreads far beyond where the lava itself is flowing, pushing the problem downwind. Due to the amount of lava flowing into the ocean and the strength of the winds, laze currently being generated by the Kilauea eruptions could spread up to 15 miles away, a USGS geologist told Reuters.

[h/t Forbes]

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