Programming pioneer Betty Holberton is born, March 7, 1917

-March 07, 2017

Betty Holberton, one of the six original programmers of ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer), the first general-purpose electronic digital computer, was born Frances Elizabeth Snyder on March 7, 1917, in Philadelphia.

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. World War II was under way and, as many did at the time, her professor felt she had a duty to her country to raise children.

Holberton did not drop out of school. Instead, she decided to study 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. 

Considered untrustworthy, the women were not allowed to work in the same room as ENIAC until the end of its build. Instead, they worked with blueprints and wiring diagrams in order to program it. While their work on ENIAC later earned each of them a place in the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame, the women’s work was not even acknowledged until decades after it was done.

Betty Holberton (right foreground) programming the ENIAC computer. Source: US Army

Holberton raised her two daughters while building an accomplished career. After World War II, Holberton worked at Remington Rand and the National Bureau of Standards. She was the chief of the programming research branch for the 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 gray-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 the first statistical analysis package, which was used for the 1950 US Census. 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.

In 1997 Holberton was the only woman of the original six who programmed the ENIAC to receive the Augusta Ada Lovelace Award, the highest award given by the Association of Women in Computing. Also in 1997, Holberton received the IEEE Computer Pioneer Award from the IEEE Computer Society for developing the SORT/MERGE generator which, according to IEEE, "inspired the first ideas about compilation.”

Holberton died in December 2001 at the age of 84.

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Editor's note: This article was originally posted on March 7, 2013 and edited on March 7, 2017.

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