by Bill Mauchly
March 23, 2011 – Jean Jennings Bartik, pioneer software engineer, died at age 86. She was one of the original programmers for the ENIAC, and continued in a career in the computer industry. She worked closely with Eckert and Mauchly at the Eckert Mauchly Computer Corporation in late 1940’s, an environment of innovation she referred to as a “Technical Camelot.”
I am going to miss her. Jean was a ball of fire; she was always full of energy, enthusiasm, good stories and an uncensored opinion. “The ENIAC was a son-of-a-bitch to program,” she once explained. And she wasn’t being sensational – she was trying to be honest! She knew – it was her job. By 1947 she was head of a group of programmers at the Moore School writing code for the new-and-improved stored-program version of the ENIAC, an enhancement that was yet to be built. I believe that this makes her the first modern software engineer – a person who’s job is to write code for a (stored-program) computer.
I got to know Jean Bartik in the last ten years. My mother, Kay Mauchly, was also one of the original six women programmers for the ENIAC. She and Jean had started getting together to give talks about their experiences at the dawn of the digital era, working alongside Pres Eckert, John Mauchly, and John von Neumann, among others. After my mother died in 2006 we stayed in touch and did a few things socially. Jean came to see my jazz band play an outdoor concert; think about that – an 80 year old woman dragging a friend, a bottle of wine and a beach chair out to see live music.
My wife and I went to the Computer History Museum to celebrate with Jean and her family when she was inducted into the Hall of Fame. It was gala event and Jean was in top form. She is a great – no, I guess I have to say she was a great public speaker. Jean was so engaging, so authentic. A natural story teller, but they weren’t just stories – she lived every bit of it, and still remembered all the details of her long career in computing. Linus Torvalds and Robert Metcalfe were also getting honored that night, but they had a hard time getting their share of the limelight in the presence of Jean’s natural Missouri charm.
Jean Bartik will be remembered in many ways. Just a month ago I was proof-reading her autobiography, which, with luck, will be published this year by Northwest Missouri State University. They have also established the Jean Jennings Bartik Computer Museum there in her honor. She is, along with the other human “computers” and ENIAC programmers, part of a new documentary film “Top Secret Rosies.” She is a role-model for women in technology. Those of us who knew her will remember her genuine warmth coupled with razor sharp intelligence. But I have to admit that I might just remember her wit above all.
Jean Bartik’s advice to women in the workforce:
“Look like a girl, act like a lady, and work like a dog.”