Pioneer Programmer: Jean Jennings Bartik and the Computer that Changed the World

Pioneer Programmer” is the autobiography of my mother, Jean Jennings Bartik (1924-2011). Truman State University published her autobiography on November 6.

The autobiography focuses on her stories of the early computer industry. My mother was one of the first six computer programmers on the ENIAC, the electronic computer that in 1946 got the computer industry started. The first six computer programmers were all women.  For many years, the “ENIAC women” were ignored in historical accounts, but this has changed in recent years.  For example, all the ENIAC women were inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame in 1997, my mother was made a Fellow of the Computer History Museum in 2008, and Steve Lohr of the New York Times wrote her obituary in 2011.

Why is this book of general interest? Because an important public policy issue is the under-representation of women in many areas of science and technology, including computers. There are many reasons for this under-representation, but at least one issue is the lack of female role models, as Catherine Rampell pointed out a few weeks ago in the New York Times magazine.

There are many good organizations working hard to increase women’s participation in computers and other technology fields: for example, the Anita Borg Institute, Women in Technology International, Women in Technology, the National Center for Women and Information Technology, and Girls Who Code. But we also need good dramatic stories. And that is what my mother wanted to provide – not only her own story, but also stories of the many fascinating personalities of the early computer industry, including the other women who were involved. She also recounts examples of some of the obstacles that women faced after World War II in making progress in computing, many of which continue today.

My mother wanted to provide stories that would encourage young women to consider science and technology fields as careers. She worked very hard to write this book so it would be interesting to a broad audience. I’m hardly an objective observer, but I think she succeeded. And others agree. Jennifer Light, a professor at Northwestern who has written about the role of women in the early computer industry, describes the book as follows:

 “A firsthand account of the history of American computing from one of the last human computers—who was also one of the first computer programmers—this book combines personal reflections and historical analysis in a lively narrative. Bartik gives readers a sense of the individuals and institutions who shaped computing in the twentieth century as well as her perspective on important issues such as continuing gender disparities in the field. The author’s personality sparkles throughout, and many photographs complement the text. This is a truly unique study and I highly recommend it.”

I have to second Professor Light’s comment that my mother’s personality comes through in the book. It is not an academic treatise. If you want a sense of her personality from a video, this six-minute video from the Computer History Museum mostly consists of an interview with my mother. She elaborates on and tells many more such stories in the book.

Book availability: from Truman State; from Amazon; Amazon Kindle; Barnes and Noble Nook. And if you request it, maybe your local public library.

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
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