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Nov. 8, 2013
In early 1945, the U.S. military was recruiting female mathematicians to work on a top-secret project to help the country win World War II. Looking for an adventure, a 20-year-old Northwest Missouri State University graduate applied for the job, and that adventure turned into a lifelong career in the field of computers.
The story of Northwest alumna Jean Jennings Bartik and five other women selected to program the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer (ENIAC), the first successful general-purpose programmable electronic computer, is now told in Bartik’s autobiography.
“Pioneer Programmer: Jean Jennings Bartik and the Computer that Changed the World” was published Nov. 6 by Truman State University Press.
Bartik, who passed away in March 2011, tells her story, exposing myths about the computer’s origin and properly crediting those behind the computing innovations that shape our daily lives. It is the only book written by any of the six original ENIAC programmers about those early years of computing.
“This book is unique,” said Bill Mauchly, son of ENIAC co-inventor John Mauchly. “It is not another secondhand retelling of the invention of the computer. It is not like the many technical histories that are part scholarly overview and part narrative designed to elevate some particular inventor to superhuman status. This is Jean’s story.”
Dr. Jon Rickman and Kim Todd, co-founders of the Jean Jennings Bartik Computing Museum at Northwest, edited the book. Rickman implemented the nation’s first Electronic Campus at Northwest in 1987 and retired from the University in 2012 as vice president of information systems. Todd serves at Northwest as user consultant in the Department of Information Systems.
“It's great to see the quality of her completed autobiography,” Rickman said. “Her book is a fulfilling life story of a true pioneer in technology. Her firsthand experiences with the first successful computer and the people who started the computer industry are historically significant.”
Rickman added, “I believe that everyone will find her life intriguing. She was raised on a farm in northwest Missouri, graduated from Northwest Missouri State and went on to head up a team to create the first stored program computer.”
Bartik was hired as a “computer” to calculate artillery shell trajectories for Aberdeen Proving Ground and was later one of six women hired to program the ENIAC. In 1946, Bartik headed up a team that modified the ENIAC into the first stored-program electronic computer.
Even with her talents, Bartik met obstacles in her career due to attitudes about women’s roles in the workplace. Her perseverance paid off and she worked with the earliest computer pioneers who launched the modern computer industry. Despite their contributions, Bartik and the other female ENIAC programmers have been largely ignored.
At Northwest, Bartik was the only female math major when she graduated in 1945. She returned to Northwest frequently and was on hand in the spring of 2002 as the University dedicated its Jean Jennings Bartik Computing Museum. That same year, she delivered Northwest’s commencement address, receiving a standing ovation from the audience and an honorary doctorate from the University. In the fall of 2007, she was the Homecoming Grand Marshal.
“I want to be remembered as a lucky person who was in the right place at the right time to be a pioneer in the computer business,” Bartik said in a July 2001 cover story for the Northwest Alumni Magazine. “The only characteristics I have are a sense of adventure, believing I can do anything and knowing to open the door when opportunity knocks.”
Shortly after her death, faculty members in Northwest’s School of Computer Science and Information Systems established the Association of Computing Machinery for Women, which emphasizes support for women and minorities in computing. Additionally, the Jean Jennings Bartik Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Scholarship was established for females interested in the STEM fields.
All proceeds from the book will go toward the Jean Jennings Bartik Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Scholarship. For more information about the scholarship or to make a donation, contact the Northwest Foundation at firstname.lastname@example.org or 660.562.1248.
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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Northwest Missouri State University
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