Betty Holberton

Betty Holberton was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1917 into a family of 8 children. At the University of Pennsylvania, Holberton studied journalism, because its curriculum let her travel far afield. Journalism was also one of the few fields open to women as a career in the 1940s. On her first day of classes, Holberton’s math professor asked her if she wouldn’t be better off at home raising children.

During World War II while the Army needed to compute ballistics trajectories, many women were hired for this task. Holberton was hired by the Moore School of Engineering to work as a “computer” and chosen to be one of the six women to program the ENIAC. The ENIAC stood for Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer. Classified as “subprofessionals”, Holberton, along with five other women, programmed the ENIAC to perform calculations for ballistics trajectories electronically for the Ballistic Research Laboratory.

In the beginning, because the ENIAC was classified, the women were only allowed to work with blueprints and wiring diagrams in order to program it. During her time working on ENIAC she had many productive ideas that came to her overnight, leading other programmers to jokingly state that she “solved more problems in her sleep than other people did awake.”

After World War II, Holberton worked at Remington Rand and the National Bureau of Standards. She was the Chief of the Programming Research Branch, Applied Mathematics Laboratory at the David Taylor Model Basin in 1959. She helped to develop the UNIVAC, designing control panels that put the numeric keypad next to the keyboard and persuading engineers to replace the Univac’s black exterior with the gray-beige tone that came to be the universal color of computers.

She was one of those who wrote the first generative programming system (SORT/MERGE). Holberton used a deck of playing cards to develop the decision tree for the binary sort function, and wrote the code to employ a group of ten tape drives to read and write data as needed during the process. She wrote the first statistical analysis package, which was used for the 1950 US Census.

In 1953 she was made a supervisor of advanced programming in a part of the Navy’s Applied Math lab in Maryland, where she stayed until 1966. Holberton worked with John Mauchly to develop the C-10 instruction set for BINAC, which is considered to be the prototype of all modern programming languages. She also participated in the development of early standards for the COBOL and FORTRAN programming languages with Grace Hopper. Later, as an employee of the National Bureau of Standards, she was very active in the first two revisions of the Fortran language standard (“FORTRAN 77” and “Fortran 90”).

Entry courtesy of Corey Elowsky


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