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."

Moricz was banned from speaking up about LGBTQ topics. He found a brilliant workaround.

Senior class president Zander Moricz was given a fair warning: If he used his graduation speech to criticize the “Don’t Say Gay” law, then his microphone would be shut off immediately.

Moricz had been receiving a lot of attention for his LGBTQ activism prior to the ceremony. Moricz, an openly gay student at Pine View School for the Gifted in Florida, also organized student walkouts in protest and is the youngest public plaintiff in the state suing over the law formally known as the Parental Rights in Education law, which prohibits the discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K-3.

Though well beyond third grade, Moricz nevertheless was also banned from speaking up about the law, gender or sexuality. The 18-year-old tweeted, “I am the first openly-gay Class President in my school’s history–this censorship seems to show that they want me to be the last.”

However, during his speech, Moricz still delivered a powerful message about identity. Even if he did have to use a clever metaphor to do it.

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Leah Menzies/TikTok

Leah Menzies had no idea her deceased mother was her boyfriend's kindergarten teacher.

When you start dating the love of your life, you want to share it with the people closest to you. Sadly, 18-year-old Leah Menzies couldn't do that. Her mother died when she was 7, so she would never have the chance to meet the young woman's boyfriend, Thomas McLeodd. But by a twist of fate, it turns out Thomas had already met Leah's mom when he was just 3 years old. Leah's mom was Thomas' kindergarten teacher.

The couple, who have been dating for seven months, made this realization during a visit to McCleodd's house. When Menzies went to meet his family for the first time, his mom (in true mom fashion) insisted on showing her a picture of him making a goofy face. When they brought out the picture, McLeodd recognized the face of his teacher as that of his girlfriend's mother.

Menzies posted about the realization moment on TikTok. "Me thinking my mum (who died when I was 7) will never meet my future boyfriend," she wrote on the video. The video shows her and McLeodd together, then flashes to the kindergarten class picture.

“He opens this album and then suddenly, he’s like, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God — over and over again,” Menzies told TODAY. “I couldn’t figure out why he was being so dramatic.”

Obviously, Menzies is taking great comfort in knowing that even though her mother is no longer here, they can still maintain a connection. I know how important it was for me to have my mom accept my partner, and there would definitely be something missing if she wasn't here to share in my joy. It's also really incredible to know that Menzies' mother had a hand in making McLeodd the person he is today, even if it was only a small part.

@speccylee

Found out through this photo in his photo album. A moment straight out of a movie 🥲

♬ iris - 🫶

“It’s incredible that that she knew him," Menzies said. "What gets me is that she was standing with my future boyfriend and she had no idea.”

Since he was only 3, McLeodd has no actual memory of Menzies' mother. But his own mother remembers her as “kind and really gentle.”

The TikTok has understandably gone viral and the comments are so sweet and positive.

"No the chills I got omggg."

"This is the cutest thing I have watched."

"It’s as if she remembered some significance about him and sent him to you. Love fate 😍✨"

In the caption of the video, she said that discovering the connection between her boyfriend and her mom was "straight out of a movie." And if you're into romantic comedies, you're definitely nodding along right now.

Menzies and McLeodd made a follow-up TikTok to address everyone's positive response to their initial video and it's just as sweet. The young couple sits together and addresses some of the questions they noticed pop up. People were confused that they kept saying McLeodd was in kindergarten but only 3 years old when he was in Menzies' mother's class. The couple is Australian and Menzies explained that it's the equivalent of American preschool.

They also clarified that although they went to high school together and kind of knew of the other's existence, they didn't really get to know each other until they started dating seven months ago. So no, they truly had no idea that her mother was his teacher. Menzies revealed that she "didn't actually know that my mum taught at kindergarten."

"I just knew she was a teacher," she explained.

She made him act out his reaction to seeing the photo, saying he was "speechless," and when she looked at the photo she started crying. McLeodd recognized her mother because of the pictures Menzies keeps in her room. Cue the "awws," because this is so cute, I'm kvelling.

Joy

50-years ago they trade a grilled cheese for a painting. Now it's worth a small fortune.

Irene and Tony Demas regularly traded food at their restaurant in exchange for crafts. It paid off big time.

Photo by Gio Bartlett on Unsplash

Painting traded for grilled cheese worth thousands.

The grilled cheese at Irene and Tony Demas’ restaurant was truly something special. The combination of freshly baked artisan bread and 5-year-old cheddar was enough to make anyone’s mouth water, but no one was nearly as devoted to the item as the restaurant’s regular, John Kinnear.

Kinnear loved the London, Ontario restaurant's grilled cheese so much that he ordered it every single day, though he wouldn’t always pay for it in cash. The Demases were well known for bartering their food in exchange for odds and ends from local craftspeople and merchants.

“Everyone supported everyone back then,” Irene told the Guardian, saying that the couple would often trade free soup and a sandwich for fresh flowers. Two different kinds of nourishment, you might say.

And so, in the 1970s the Demases made a deal with Kinnear that he could pay them for his grilled cheese sandwiches with artwork. Being a painter himself and part of an art community, Kinnear would never run out of that currency.

Little did Kinnear—or anyone—know, eventually he would give the Demases a painting worth an entire lifetime's supply of grilled cheeses. And then some.

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