The role of women in the history of technology has been overlooked for too long. It’s time to share and teach, and women need to work together to make this history more visible, Kathy Kleiman, co-producer of The Computers told Inspirefest 2015.
It was fitting that Inspirefest 2015 began with a few important history lessons. These lessons underlined the fact that the major technology breakthroughs of the 19th and 20th century, which began with Ada Lovelace, continued through the World Wars, and which are influencing life today, were shamefully overlooked by the historians, generals and politicians.
In a segment that also included content ranging from Kerry Howard of Bletchley Park Research outlining the feats of Margaret Rock, Mavis Lever and Joan Clarke – cracking the German Enigma code – to the Jewels of Allah author Dr Ninah Ansary revealing the technological and scientific accomplishments made by Iranian women in spite of a repressive regime, Kleiman revealed how an important group of women had almost been overlooked by history.
Kathy Kleiman is the co-producer and co-writer of The Computers: The Remarkable Untold Story of the ENIAC Programmers. This is the story of six women missing from computing history – the women who programmed the ENIAC, the world’s first all-electronic, programmable computer (a secret US WWII project). She founded the ENIAC Programmers Project to record their oral histories, seek recognition for their accomplishments and produce a documentary of their dramatic story.
She also heads the Internet Law & Policy Group of Fletcher, Heald & Hilderth in Arlington, Virginia. She helped found ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) in 1999, and co-founded its Noncommercial Users Constituency.
The world’s first app creators
It was while Kleiman was an undergraduate studying computer science that she came across a picture of the first programmable computer, ENIAC. She noticed that while the men in the picture were captioned, the women were not. After making inquiries, she was told, dismissively, that the women were models.
Suspicious – because it appeared to her that the women in the pictures knew how to use the machines – she dug and dug until she discovered who they were.
These women were Jean Jennings Bartik, Betty Snyder Holberton, Frances Bilas Spence, Marlyn Wesscoff Meltzer, Ruth Teitelbaum and Kathleen Mauchly Antonelli.
In effect, these women were not only critical to the creation of the first programmable computer, they were the computers.
They were responsible for computing ballistics tables using mechanical calculators.
As Kleinman pointed out, these six women were founders who created the first software app and the first sorting machine, and their story might never have been told if she hadn’t noticed something odd about that picture.
“These women paved the path to modern computer science,” Kleiman said.
“At the time we were like fighter pilots,” Kathleen Mauchly Antonelli recalled in The Computers.
“ENIAC was a son of a bitch to program,” added Jean Jennings Bartik.
Kleiman said it was important to grasp lessons from the ENIAC story that should resonate with women everywhere.
“We need to celebrate our history. We have an amazing history, we should celebrate share and teach it.
“We need to work together to make this history more visible,” she added, pointing out that she knew nothing about recording or editing video prior to making The Computers. “If we don’t capture these stories now, they will be lost forever.”
She said it was vital for women everywhere who work on science or technology projects to seek proper attribution for their work. “If you don’t do it, it will be harder for computer historians – leave breadcrumbs for future historians.”
She added that having a family should be no barrier to accomplishment in technology. She pointed to Milly Koss, who worked on UNIVAC with Grace Hopper and Betty Holberton. When Milly moved to Boston and had a family, she worked on cutting edge research, sending her material by mail. Decades later, she retired as associate professor for the Office of Information Technology at Harvard.
In Kleiman’s own case, she raised a family and held down a law career while working away on a project “no one cared about” on internet governance. This work laid down the framework for ICANN.
“15 years later, no one remembers I worked part-time, but they do remember that I was one of the founders of ICANN.
“In conclusion, share your stories with the next generation because these are amazing stories of pioneers.”
The Computers will be screened at the Inspirefest Fringe Festival tonight (18 June 2015) along with a Q&A with Kathy.
Inspirefest 2015 is Silicon Republic’s international event running 18-20 June in Dublin, connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM with fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity.
This story was originally published at 11.51am on 18 June 2015. It has since been updated with a video report.