The Untold Story of the Six Women Who Programmed the World’s First Modern Computer by Kathy Kleiman

Kathy Kleiman. Grand Central, $30 (320p) ISBN 978-1-538718-28-5

Law professor Kleiman recounts in her fantastic debut the vital but overlooked role six women played in the history of computers. While researching computer programming, Kleiman came across photos of unidentified women working on the ENIAC, “the world’s first all-electronic, programmable, general-purpose computer” built at the University of Pennsylvania during WWII. Unconvinced by a museum director’s suggestion that they were models, she dug deeper and uncovered their role in ENIAC’s development. In 1942, with the US having joined WWII and men in short supply, the Army hired young women with math backgrounds to program ENIAC to calculate missile trajectories. With no manuals to aid them, Frances Elizabeth Snyder Holberton, Betty Jean Jennings, Kathleen McNulty, Marlyn Wescoff, Frances Bilas, and Ruth Lichterman took the job. Despite harassment and discriminatory treatment (they were classified SP, for “subprofessional and subscientific”), they persevered, and with their success opened up an “electronic computing revolution” that some “would soon call… the birth of the Information Age,” Kleiman writes. Kleiman has a novelist’s gift for crafting a page-turning narrative, and the one on offer is both revelatory and inspiring. Fans of Dava Sobel’s The Glass Universe and Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures are in for a treat. (July)

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