A Penn engineering professor’s take on what the women behind the ENIAC would think of today's tech - Technical.ly Philly

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Mar. 9, 2020 1:34 pm

A Penn engineering professor’s take on what the women behind the ENIAC would think of today’s tech

The six women who programmed the first computer will represent Pennovation Works at Philly Tech Week 2020 presented by Comcast.
(L to R) ENIAC programmer Jean Jennings Bartik, designer John Mauchly, programmer Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer and designer J. Presper Eckert.

(L to R) ENIAC programmer Jean Jennings Bartik, designer John Mauchly, programmer Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer and designer J. Presper Eckert.

(Illustration by Sean Dooley)

Pennovation Works convenes inventors, researchers and biz founders across 23 acres of office, lab and production space. That entrepreneurial ecosystem created by the University of Pennsylvania is next up on Technical.ly’s 10-week series spotlighting the innovators of Philly’s past and present ahead of Philly Tech Week 2020 presented by Comcast.

(Read about how jazz musician John Coltrane connects to REC Philly and how suffragettes and abolitionists Margaretta Forten and Lucretia Mott connect to PhillyCAM to get caught up on the series.)

In a space where ideas grow into products, it makes sense to connect our next PTW hub — which will host multiple events on Monday, May 4 — with the programmers of the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), who helped an idea become the world’s first computer at Penn in 1946.

These six female mathematicians recognized technology’s capabilities at a time when World War II forced institutions’ reliance on women’s academic work. Their work to get ENIAC off the ground went overlooked, and was erased until decades later when the “ENIAC Six” — Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Jean Jennings Bartik, Frances (Betty) Snyder Holberton, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Frances Bilas Spence and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum — were inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame in 1997.

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Pieces of the super computer that once filled an entire room in Penn’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering (now the School of Engineering and Applied Science) are spread out worldwide. Penn held onto four of its original panels.

Current engineering and chemistry professor Cherie Kagan’s research lab is coincidentally located on the third floor of the engineering school, two floors above where the piece of the ENIAC is now. Kagan got her undergrad degree in materials science and engineering and math from Penn in 1991 and her doctorate in materials science and engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1996. In 2007, she returned to Penn as a faculty member.

“It’s hard to not be proud,” Kagan said about Penn’s connection to the programmers behind the ENIAC.

Cherie Kagan. (Photo via LinkedIn)

She credits the faculty at the time of her undergraduate degree for creating a comfortable and encouraging place for women like her to pursue engineering, a commitment Penn has continued for its current engineering students: The undergrad population at the engineering school is now 40% women, Kagan said, compared to just a few when she was a student.

Kagan is at the forefront of innovation in her own right. She was selected as one of 12 Outstanding Young Woman Scientists “expected to make a substantial impact in chemistry during this century” by the American Chemical Society Women Chemist Committee in 2002 and was picked to give Stanford University’s Distinguished Women in Science Colloquium in 2009. She currently works with a group of Penn research students with engineering and chemistry backgrounds to study materials and processes that can be used to develop Internet of Things devices.

While the women of ENIAC relied on 17,468 vacuum tubes, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors, 1,500 relays, 6,000 manual switches and 5 million soldered joints to operate the computer, Kagan and her team now work with things that are much smaller and more reliable: If the ENIAC Six were around today, “they would probably be very excited to not have to keep plugging and unplugging wires,” the researcher said.

She believes the women set an example of “if others can do it, then I can do it too.” Stop by the hub at PTW20 to see everything that’s happening at Pennovation Works.

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