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Meet the 'Refrigerator Ladies' Who Programmed the ENIAC

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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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20 Facts About Your Favorite Coen Brothers’ Movies
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Gramercy Pictures

Ethan Coen turns 60 years old today, if you can believe it. Since bursting onto the scene in 1984 with the cult classic Blood Simple, the younger half of (arguably) the most dynamic moviemaking sibling duo in Hollywood has helped create some of the most memorable and quirky films in cinematic history, from Raising Arizona to Fargo and The Big Lebowski to No Country For Old Men. To celebrate the monumental birthday of one of the great writer-directors of our time (though he’s mostly uncredited as a director), here are some facts about your favorite Coen brothers’s movies.

1. THE COENS THINK BLOOD SIMPLE IS “PRETTY DAMN BAD.”

Fifteen years after Blood Simple’s release, the Coens reflected upon their first feature in the 2000 book My First Movie. “It’s crude, there’s no getting around it,” Ethan said. “On the other hand, it’s all confused with the actual process of making the movie and finishing the movie which, by and large, was a positive experience,” Joel said. “You never get entirely divorced from it that way. So, I don’t know. It’s a movie that I have a certain affection for. But I think it’s pretty damn bad!”

2. KEVIN COSTNER AND RICHARD JENKINS AUDITIONED FOR RAISING ARIZONA.

Kevin Costner auditioned three times to play H.I., only to see Nicolas Cage snag the role. Richard Jenkins had his first of many auditions for the Coens for Raising Arizona. He also (unsuccessfully) auditioned for Miller's Crossing (1990) and Fargo (1996) before calling it quits with the Coens. In 2001, Joel and Ethan cast Jenkins in The Man Who Wasn't There, even though he had never auditioned for it.

3. THE BROTHERS TURNED DOWN BATMAN TO MAKE MILLER’S CROSSING.

After Raising Arizona’s success established them as more than one-hit indie film wonders, the Coens had some options with regard to what project they could tackle next. Reportedly, their success meant that they were among the filmmakers being considered to make Batman for Warner Bros. Of course, the Coens ultimately decided to go the less commercial route, and Tim Burton ended up telling the story of The Dark Knight on the big screen.

4. BARTON FINK AND W.P. MAYHEW WERE LOOSELY BASED ON CLIFFORD ODETS AND WILLIAM FAULKNER.

The Coens acknowledge that Fink and Odets had similar backgrounds, but they had different personalities: Odets was extroverted, for one thing. Turturro, not his directors, read Odets’ 1940 journal. The Coens acknowledged that John Mahoney (Mayhew) looks a lot like the The Sound and the Fury author.

5. THE COENS'S WEB OF DECEPTION IN FARGO GOES EVEN FURTHER THAN THE OPENING CREDITS. 

While the tag on the beginning of the movie reads “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987,” Fargo is, by no stretch of the imagination, a true story. During the film's press tour, the Coens admitted that while not pinpoint accurate, the story was indeed inspired by a similar crime that occurred in Minnesota, with Joel stating “In its general structure, the film is based on a real event, but the details of the story and the characters are fictional.”

However, any and all efforts to uncover anything resembling such a crime ever occurring in Minnesota come up empty, and in an introduction to the published script, Ethan pretty much admitted as much, writing that Fargo “aims to be both homey and exotic, and pretends to be true." 

6. THEY WANTED MARLON BRANDO TO PLAY JEFFREY LEBOWSKI.

According to Alex Belth, who wrote the e-book The Dudes Abide on his time spent working as an assistant to the Coens, casting the role of Jeffrey Lebowski was one of the last decisions made before filming. Names tossed around for the role included Robert Duvall (who passed because he wasn’t fond of the script), Anthony Hopkins (who passed since he had no interest in playing an American), and Gene Hackman (who was taking a break at the time). A second “wish list” included an oddball “who’s who," including Norman Mailer, George C. Scott, Jerry Falwell, Gore Vidal, Andy Griffith, William F. Buckley, and Ernest Borgnine.

The Coens’ ultimate Big Lebowski, however, was the enigmatic Marlon Brando, who by that time was reaching the end of his career (and life). Apparently, the Coens amused themselves by quoting some of their favorite Jeffrey Lebowski lines (“Strong men also cry”) in a Brando accent. The role would eventually go to the not-particularly-famous—albeit pitch-perfect—veteran character actor David Huddleston. In true Dude fashion, it all worked out in the end.

7. JOEL COEN WOOED FRANCES MCDORMAND ON THE SET OF BLOOD SIMPLE.

Coen and McDormand fell in love while making Blood Simple and got married a couple of years later, after production wrapped. McDormand told The Daily Beast about the moment when she roped him in. “I’d only brought one book to read to Austin, Texas, where we were filming, and I asked him if there was anything he’d recommend,” she said. “He brought me a box of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler paperbacks, and I said, ‘Which one should I start with?’ And he said, ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice.’ I read it, and it was one of the sexiest f*ckin’ books I’ve ever read. A couple of nights later, I said, ‘Would you like to come over and discuss the book?’ That did it. He seduced me with literature. And then we discussed books and drank hot chocolate for several evenings. It was f*ckin’ hot. Keep it across the room for as long as you can—that’s a very important element.”

8. O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? WAS ORIGINALLY INSPIRED BY THE WIZARD OF OZ.

Joel Coen revealed as much at the 15th anniversary reunion. “It started as a 'three saps on the run' kind of movie, and then at a certain point we looked at each other and said, 'You know, they're trying to get home—let's just say this is The Odyssey. We were thinking of it more as The Wizard of Oz. We wanted the tag on the movie to be: 'There's No Place Like Home.’”

9. THE ACTORS IN FARGO WENT THROUGH EXTENSIVE TRAINING TO GET THEIR ACCENTS RIGHT.

Having grown up in Minnesota, the Coens were more than familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the “Minnesota nice” accent, but much of the cast—including Frances McDormand and William H. Macy—needed coaching to get the intricacies right. Actors were even given copies of the scripts with extensive pronunciation notes. According to dialect coach Larissa Kokernot, who also appeared as one of the prostitutes Gaear and Carl rendezvous with in Brainerd, the “musicality” of the Minnesota nice accent comes from a place of “wanting people to agree with each other and get along.” This homey sensibility, contrasted with the ugly crimes committed throughout the movie, is, of course, one of the major reasons why the dark comedy is such an enduring classic.

10. NICOLAS CAGE'S HAIR REACTED TO H.I.'S STRESS LEVEL IN RAISING ARIZONA.

Ethan claimed that Cage was "crazy about his Woody Woodpecker haircut. The more difficulties his character got in, the bigger the wave in his hair got. There was a strange connection between the character and his hair."

11. A PROP FROM THE HUDSUCKER PROXY INSPIRED THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE.

A bit of set dressing from 1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy eventually led to 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There. In a barbershop scene, there’s a poster hanging in the background that featured a range of men’s hairstyles from the 1940s. The brothers liked the prop and kept it, and it’s what eventually served as the inspiration for The Man Who Wasn’t There.

12. GEORGE CLOONEY SIGNED ON TO O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? BEFORE EVEN READING THE SCRIPT.

The brothers visited George Clooney in Phoenix while he was making Three Kings (1999), wanting to work with him after seeing his performance in Out of Sight (1998). Moments after they put their script on Clooney’s hotel room table, the actor said “Great, I’m in.”

13. A SNAG IN THE MILLER’S CROSSING SCRIPT ULTIMATELY LED TO BARTON FINK.

Miller’s Crossing is a complicated beast, full of characters double-crossing each other and scheming for mob supremacy. In fact, it’s so complicated that at one point during the writing process the Coens had to take a break. It turned out to be a productive one: While Miller’s Crossing was on pause, the brothers wrote the screenplay for Barton Fink, the story of a writer who can’t finish a script.

14. INTOLERABLE CRUELTY IS THE FIRST COEN MOVIE THAT WASN’T THE BROTHERS’ ORIGINAL IDEA.

In 1995, the Coens rewrote a script originally penned by other screenwriters, Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, and John Romano. They didn’t decide to direct the movie, which became Intolerable Cruelty, until 2003.

15. THE LADYKILLERS WAS WRITTEN FOR BARRY SONNENFELD TO DIRECT.

The Coens effortlessly jump from crime thriller to comedy without missing a beat. So when they were commissioned to write a remake of the British black comedy The Ladykillers for director Barry Sonnenfeld, it seemed to fall in line with their cinematic sensibilities. When Sonnenfeld dropped out of the project, the Coens were hired to direct the film.

16. BURN AFTER READING MARKED THE FIRST TIME SINCE MILLER’S CROSSING THAT THE COENS DIDN’T WORK WITH THEIR USUAL CINEMATOGRAPHER, ROGER DEAKINS.

Instead, eventual Academy Award-winner Emmanuel Lubezki acted as the director of photography. The Coens would work with Deakins again on every one of their films until 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis.

17. IT TOOK SOME CONVINCING TO GET JAVIER BARDEM TO SAY “YES” TO NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

Though it’s hard to imagine No Country for Old Men without Javier Bardem’s menacing—and Oscar-winning—performance as antagonist Anton Chigurh, he almost passed on the role. “It’s not something I especially like, killing people—even in movies,” Bardem said of his disdain for violence. “When the Coens called, I said, ‘Listen, I’m the wrong actor. I don’t drive, I speak bad English, and I hate violence.’ They laughed and said, ‘Maybe that’s why we called you.”’

18. PATTON OSWALT AUDITIONED FOR A SERIOUS MAN.

Patton Oswalt auditioned for the role of the obnoxious Arthur Gopnik in A Serious Man, a part that ultimately went to Richard Kind. Oswalt talked about his audition while appearing on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, in which it was also revealed that Maron was being considered for the lead role of Larry Gopnik (the role that earned Michael Stuhlbarg his first, and so far only, Golden Globe nomination). 

19. THE CAT IN INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS WAS “A NIGHTMARE.”

Ulysses, the orange cat who practically stole Inside Llewyn Davis away from Oscar Isaac, was reportedly a bit of a diva. "The cat was a nightmare,” Ethan Coen said on the DVD commentary. “The trainer warned us and she was right. She said, uh, "Dogs like to please you. The cat only likes to please itself.’ A cat basically is impossible to train. We have a lot of footage of cats doing things we don't want them to do, if anyone's interested; I don't know if there's a market for that."

20. THE COEN BROTHERS PROBABLY DON’T LOVE THE BIG LEBOWSKI AS MUCH AS YOU DO. 

We’re assuming the Coen Brothers are plenty fond of The Dude: after all, he doesn’t end up facing imminent death or tragedy, which is more than most of their protagonists have going for them. But in a rare Coen Brothers interview in 2009, Joel Coen flatly stated, “That movie has more of an enduring fascination for other people than it does for us.”

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‘American Gothic’ Became Famous Because Many People Saw It as a Joke
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In 1930, Iowan artist Grant Wood painted a simple portrait of a farmer and his wife (really his dentist and sister) standing solemnly in front of an all-American farmhouse. American Gothic has since inspired endless parodies and is regarded as one of the country’s most iconic works of art. But when it first came out, few people would have guessed it would become the classic it is today. Vox explains the painting’s unexpected path to fame in the latest installment of the new video series Overrated.

According to host Phil Edwards, American Gothic made a muted splash when it first hit the art scene. The work was awarded a third-place bronze medal in a contest at the Chicago Art Institute. When Wood sold the painting to the museum later on, he received just $300 for it. But the piece’s momentum didn’t stop there. It turned out that American Gothic’s debut at a time when urban and rural ideals were clashing helped it become the defining image of the era. The painting had something for everyone: Metropolitans like Gertrude Stein saw it as a satire of simple farm life in Middle America. Actual farmers and their families, on the other hand, welcomed it as celebration of their lifestyle and work ethic at a time when the Great Depression made it hard to take pride in anything.

Wood didn’t do much to clear up the work’s true meaning. He stated, "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life."

Rather than suffering from its ambiguity, American Gothic has been immortalized by it. The country has changed a lot in the past century, but the painting’s dual roles as a straight masterpiece and a format for skewering American culture still endure today.

Get the full story from Vox below.

[h/t Vox]

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