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She recalls role in programming first computer

Wednesday, October 25, 2000

By Byron Spice, Science Editor, Post-Gazette

You can call Kay McNulty Mauchly Antonelli a computer. You can call her a computer programmer. You can call her a mathematician. She is all those things. But just don't call her a "refrigerator lady."

Kay McNulty Mauchly Antonelli (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

Some clod made that mistake -- once -- when looking at photos of the first electronic computer, the ENIAC. The male engineers who built it and became famous after its unveiling in 1946 were easy to spot. But this fellow dismissed the women in the photos as window-dressing -- "refrigerator ladies" -- not unlike Betty Furness in those old Westinghouse television ads.

Antonelli, one of the women pictured, was quick to set him straight. These women were ENIAC's programmers, the people who got that 30-ton collection of 19,000 vacuum tubes to do work.

"I'm not sure there was such a word as programming back then," she said in an interview yesterday. "They regarded what we did as purely clerical."

That's certainly not the view today, when anti-trust lawyers are trying to dismantle Microsoft and when Pittsburgh hangs many of its high-tech hopes on a nascent software industry. This early disregard of computer programming is more surprising from today's perspective than the fact that women were the first computer programmers.

Antonelli, 79, of suburban Philadelphia, described her experiences with ENIAC yesterday during a lecture at the Software Engineering Institute in Oakland.

Born Kathleen McNulty in County Donegal, Ireland, she immigrated with her family to Philadelphia at age 3. She majored in mathematics at Chestnut Hill College and, upon graduation in 1942, took a job with the U.S. Army. Men with mathematics degrees were hired as mathematicians at the time, but Antonelli and her female colleagues were hired as "computers."

Working in the basement of the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Engineering, she and a hundred other women calculated ballistic trajectories, assembling tables that soldiers used to aim artillery. For each trajectory, the women would calculate the shell's position for every 10th of a second of its flight.

It was a grind. It took 30 to 40 hours to complete a single trajectory and each table contained 3,600 trajectories for different angles and wind speeds. A gear-driven calculating machine Antonelli operated could do the task faster -- by about 45 minutes -- but with less accuracy.

Unbeknownst to any of the women, Penn's John Mauchly and Presper Eckert were racing in secrecy to build ENIAC, which would be able to calculate each of those trajectories in just 10 seconds.

After the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945, the Army decided it no longer needed artillery tables.

The corps of human computers was disbanded, but Antonelli and four other women were asked to stay on to work on a secret project. They were handed blueprints and wiring diagrams for ENIAC and told to find a way to get the machine to do their old jobs.

"We had to actually decide what the computer was to do and how it would do it," Antonelli said. "There were no manuals." The women weren't even allowed to see ENIAC until that November, when it was ready to go. "The machine itself was huge; it was 80 feet long. There was a blinking light for every digit."

There also was a pair of Manhattan Project scientists from Los Alamos who had already programmed ENIAC to perform a calculation for a hydrogen bomb problem. Its results were then compared with the scientists' own hand-computed calculations. "If [the computer] made a mistake, we had to locate the one tube out of 19,000 that had blown out," Antonelli said.

There was no such thing as software. ENIAC was programmed by wiring. To change programs, the women would have to plug wires into sockets, much like an old-time telephone switchboard, and then turn switches. The Army hadn't been concerned with changing programs often; it was interested only in computing ballistic trajectories.

But as word of ENIAC spread, lots of people had ideas about what to do with the machine's blinding speed -- 5,000 mathematical additions per second. (Today's fastest computers can perform trillions of calculations per second.) Antonelli helped Douglas Hartree, an Englishman who was then one of the world's leading mathematicians, use ENIAC.

The other women likewise were kept busy rewiring as the machine was given new tasks.

Antonelli followed ENIAC when the Army moved the machine to Aberdeen, Md. But she returned to Philadelphia two years later and married Mauchly, who had been widowed during the war.

Though the Army had only a narrow interest in the computer, Mauchly had a broader vision, originally seeing it as a tool for weather prediction. He and Eckert went on to develop the Univac, the first commercial computer.

"Even as early as 1952, when computers filled up rooms, he was saying, 'What we need is a desktop machine,' " Antonelli said of Mauchly. When Radio Shack finally built the TRS-80 personal computer in the late 1970s, Mauchly bought two -- one for upstairs, one downstairs -- and was on the phone daily with its developers in Texas.

It was easy to foresee, even early on, that computers eventually would become commonplace, Antonelli said. Harder to predict, she added, was the Internet. "The Internet has just globalized the whole thing. It's just utterly fantastic -- a child here can converse with someone in China."

Her own involvement in computers declined as she spent more time taking care of children and homes, but she began to get requests to talk about her experiences after Mauchly's death in 1980. The public speaking gained momentum four years ago, when festivities marked ENIAC's 50th anniversary.

In 1985, she married photographer Severo Antonelli; he died in 1996.

The computer still amazes her -- especially when her autistic, 9-year-old grandson slips a disk in the machine and plays a game.

"He can't talk. He can't do much of anything. But something about that machine connects with him," she said. "I'm awfully impressed by what computers can be made to do."

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