Heroes

These 6 women got written out of tech history. They're finally being recognized.

The dawn of the Digital Revolution was ushered in by 6 women in Philadelphia in the mid-1900s.

70 years ago, six Philadelphia women were recruited by the United States Army for a very special project.

In 1942, Betty Jean Jennings Bartik, Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum, Frances Bilas Spence, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, and Betty Snyder Holberton were chosen to work on a classified government project known as the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC.

Considered to be the world's first "general-purpose" computer, the ENIAC was built with the goal of more quickly calculating the ballistics trajectories of missiles during wartime.


Even though the women all hailed from mathematical backgrounds, they'd never operated such a massive computer before.

In fact, almost no one in the U.S. had.

So they started out with a three-month crash course in Aberdeen, Pennsylvania, where they learned the many different computing systems necessary to run the ENIAC.

Photo of "the world's first computer" via International Communications Agency/Wikimedia Commons.

Upon their return to the Moore School of Engineering in Philadelphia, the six women were thrust headfirst into the ENIAC program and given little more than a stack of wiring diagrams for the computer's many panels as their guide.

The ENIAC was equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors, and 5 million hand-soldered joints.

Weighing a few dozen tons and filling a 1,500-square-foot room, it was a monstrosity that was as physically demanding to operate as it was mentally tasking.

Working double and triple shifts six days a week, this ragtag crew of six female "computers" (which was a job title back then) lugged cables and trays between panels on the massive machine. Occasionally they even had to crawl inside it to fix faulty tubes.

"Betty [Holberton] and I were the workhorses and finishers, tying up loose ends," said Jean Bartik in a 2011 interview, echoing Holberton's notorious motto, "Look like a girl, act like a lady, and work like a dog."

It was exhausting, backbreaking work, but these six women helped to usher in the dawn of the Digital Revolution.

They were essentially the first computer programmers in the U.S.


Meanwhile, I still can't figure out how to hook up an HDMI cable to my TV. GIF via Computer History Archives, used with permission.

When the ENIAC was unveiled on Feb. 15, 1946, it was lauded by the press as a "Giant Brain" because of its otherworldly speed. It could compute complex mathematical equations up to 10,000 times faster than any other electro-mechanical machines in existence.

Of course, being that this was the 1940s, the revolutionary work of these women specifically was almost completely overlooked.

Despite debugging every last issue that the ENIAC faced and teaching the technology to their male replacements when they returned home from World War II, the women were treated as little more than models to show off the machine. In fact, they weren't even invited to the celebratory dinner that was held after the unveiling ceremony.

A utility model of the ENIAC. Photo by Keystone for Getty Images.

"We thought that was terrible," said Bartik in an interview with CNN. "It was not a secret. The only problem was nobody was interested. They didn't know anything about it."

Thankfully, these technological trailblazers are finally receiving their due credit ... more than 50 years later.

In 1997, all six women were inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame. That same year, Holberton received the Augusta Ada Lovelace Award, the highest award given by the Association of Women in Computing.

In 2011, the Philadelphia City Council officially declared Feb. 15 as ENIAC Day in honor of the group's extraordinary work, and just last year, the Holberton School, a project-based school for software engineers, was founded in San Francisco.

The long-unexplored story of the team's groundbreaking work was also brought to light in the 2014 documentary, "The Computers," thanks to the efforts of The ENIAC Programmers Project.

Another batch of female computer engineers. Photo from U.S. Army.

Anyone who owns a smartphone or computer owes a huge debt of gratitude to the work of these pioneering women.

But let's not forget that there's still progress to be made for women who work in technology, even now.

To this day, women still only account for a fraction of technology-based jobs, due in part to the ridiculous stereotype that they "just aren't cut out for it." Sadly, Google's 30% female employment rate represents one of the highest percentages in the tech industry — this despite a recent gender-blind study of GitHub coding suggesting that women measure up as slightly better coders than men.

To put it simply, diversity in business is good for business (duh).

A more diverse talent pool means a broader range of perspectives when it comes to problem-solving and innovation. Statistically speaking, women have also risen to become one of the most important demographic in the technology industry and users of a far wider variety of technology than their male counterparts.

A lack of diversity in tech can actually hurt businesses, according to a study published in McKinsey: "Businesses in the top quartile in terms of racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more like to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians."

We should already know this. Holberton, Antonelli, and four other women proved it over 70 years ago. Thousands of women are still proving it today.

And since this whole "technology" thing ain't slowing down any time soon, we're left with two simple options: We start giving women the recognition (and employment) they deserve in the tech industry, or we get used to "reprogramming" our smartphones the only way that most of us know how:

"Can you hang on a sec? I think you're BREAKING UP." GIF via "Entourage."

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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