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12 women engineers and scientists you must know

Posted: 24 Mar 2015     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:STEM  mothers of innovation  Moore  Tesla  COBOL 

Betty Holberton: From ENIAC to minicomputers

Like Hopper, Betty Holberton, one of the six original programmers of ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer), discovered her engineering skills during WWII.

The world could have easily missed out on Holberton's contributions, however. On her first day of classes at the University of Pennsylvania, Holberton's math professor asked her if she wouldn't be better off at home raising children during the war.

Holberton studied journalism, one of the few fields open to women as a career in the 1940s and one that would allow her to research and write about any subject that interested her.

During WWII, the Army needed qualified people to compute ballistics trajectories. Men, who were the first choice in the era, were scarce with many fighting overseas. So the Army looked to college-educated women.

Holberton was hired by the Moore School of Engineering to work in the "computor" pool and was soon chosen to be one of the six women to program ENIAC. Classified as "subprofessionals" with the government writing off programming as clerical work at the time, Holberton, along with Kay McNulty, Marlyn Wescoff, Ruth Lichterman, Betty Jean Jennings and Fran Bilas, programmed the ENIAC to perform calculations for ballistics trajectories electronically for the Army's Ballistic Research Laboratory.

Holberton

Holberton was hired by the Moore School of Engineering and was soon chosen to be one of the six women to program ENIAC.

After World War II, Holberton worked at Remington Rand and the National Bureau of Standards. She was the chief of the programming research branch Applied Mathematics Laboratory at the David Taylor Model Basin in 1959.

Further, Holberton helped to develop the UNIVAC, designing control panels that put the numeric keypad next to the keyboard and persuading engineers to replace the UNIVAC's black exterior with the grey-beige tone; these would become universal to computer design for decades following her work.

She also wrote the first generative programming system (SORT/MERGE), and wrote the first statistical analysis package, which was used for the 1950 U.S. Census. Moreover, Holberton worked with John Mauchly to develop the C-10 instruction for BINAC, considered by some to be the prototype of all modern programming languages.

Holberton also worked on DEC's PDP-8 minicomputers. Never giving up on her career, she became a member of the COBOL programming language committee and helped write standards for FORTRAN.

Her rich career produced not only the aforementioned tech innovations but also several awards, including the Augusta Ada Lovelace Award, the highest award given by the Association of Women in Computing.

Holberton died in December 2001 at the age of 84.


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