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Proving Ground: The Untold Story of the Six Women Who Programmed the World’s First Modern Computer

I enjoyed Proving Ground: The Untold Story of the Six Women Who Programmed the World’s First Modern Computer, by Kathy Kleiman, published last July. In truth, I’m not really a tech kind of guy, and so much of the bulk of the story, taking us through the programming puzzles that had to be worked out in the early days of computers, was more background noise to me (although Kleiman does a very good job of explaining for those who are interested.)

The most fascinating parts of the book for me were the Preface and the Epilogue. She begins the book by detailing the long, painstaking discovery of this story. It began with her curiosity about a single black-and-white photograph of the room-sized ENIAC computer built on the University of Pennsylvania campus in the 1940s. There were six people in the room: two men and four women, but the caption only identified the men. Kleiman, herself a woman interested in computing, was intrigued. As she writes, she’d knew about Ada Lovelace, who worked on early programming theory in the Nineteenth Century, and with Captain Grace Hopper of the US Navy, who was credited with some early programming work in the 1940s. But who were these other women? A deep dive into musty archives turned up some more photographs, but still with no identification of the women.

She turned for advice to Dr. Gwen Bell, cofounder of the Computer Museum. Surely another computer-oriented woman would be interested and perhaps have some insight. But her answer?

“They’re refrigerator ladies,” she said.

“What’s a refrigerator lady?” I asked, baffled as to what she was talking about.

“They’re models,” she responded, rolling her eyes. Like the Frigidaire models of the 1950s, who opened the doors of the new refrigerators with a flourish in black-and-white TV commercials, these women were just posed in front of ENIAC to make it look good. At least, that’s what Dr. Bell thought.

Well, no, they weren’t simply models posed to give visual interest to the walls of knobs, wires and lights. There were six women, erased from history, who did much of the early programming that made this early computer a success. The bulk of the book is devoted to meeting these women from various walks of life, recruited by the government for secret work in developing ways the computer could help the World War Two effort. There were no instructions to follow, no programming languages to base their work on. They created ENIAC’s programming on their own, overcoming multiple puzzles and roadblocks along the way. It is a fascinating story, well told.

In the epilogue, Kleiman relates how she finally tracked down the identities of these women, some of whom were still alive and who she interviewed. You would think the world would be gratified to have this lost history rescued, but the book ends with a kicker. She was the target of vehement pushback from many in the computing industry. William Aspray, a senior researcher with the Charles Babbage Institute, accused her of revisionist history. Nathan Ensmenger published a book entitled The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise, which featured a white man standing in front of a massive computer on its cover. He dismissed the women programmers as “glorified clerical workers” and bloviated that they “were obviously low on the intellectual and professional status hierarchy.” Another book, ENIAC in Action: Making and Remaking the Modern Computer, by Thomas Haigh, Mark Priestley and Crispin Rope, was equally dismissive, labeling them mere “operators.”

Thanks to Kleiman for this fascinating history and setting the record straight.