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Eckert and Mauchly: Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer (ENIAC), 1949

The Need for Speed

U.S. Army Lieutenant Herman Goldstine appreciated the need for a streamlining of the firing table calculation process. Goldstine had earned a Ph.D. in Mathematics at the University of Chicago before being drafted into the army in July of 1942. He served his military term in the Ballistics Research Laboratory, which was situated in the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Goldstine's Ballistics Laboratory was tasked with keeping the army supplied with weapons. The green, hilly landscape of Aberdeen provided the army with ideal artillery testing grounds. When army gunners aimed their artillery guns, they relied on a booklet of firing tables to aim properly. The firing tables helped gunners to alter the aim of their weapons to account for changes in sea level, humidity, wind speed and the like. Each new gun and each new shell had to be accompanied by new firing tables in order to be aimed and used properly. The calculations for the firing tables were performed at Aberdeen based on the results of artillery tests and mathematical formulas.

A team of women performed the calculations for the firing tables by hand using desk calculators. They entered data into the calculators using push buttons and completed each mathematical operation by pulling large handles on the calculating machines. The women who performed these mathematical operations were called "computers," and it took them more than a month to produce a complete firing table.

A team of women engineers was responsible for programming the ENIAC. The picture at right shows programmers Frances Bilas and Elizabeth Jennings in front of the ENIAC in the 1940s.