Book Review: Pioneer Programmer

If you have some background in computer science you’ve probably come across the term “von Neumann Architecture” before. The term goes back to the brilliant mathematician John von Neumann who, for the first time in 1945, described the computer architecture we still use today with an arithmetic logic unit, a control unit, registers and combined program and data memory in a seminal paper on the EDVAC. As pointed out in the Wikipedia article there is quite some controversy about this paper as it was only intended as a first internal draft for review and only bears van Neumann’s name but not those of the main inventors of the concepts, John Mauchly and Presper Eckert. While intended as an internal paper it was still distributed to a larger community and thus it had the appearance that van Neumann had come with the ideas all by himself. While attempts were made to set the record straight, the term “von Neumann architecture” stuck and has remained in place up to the present day.

There is a lot of controversy about the reasons, motivation and character of Herman Goldstine to distribute the paper without consent. “Pioneer Programmer” the autobiography of Jean Jennings Bartik edited by Jon T. Kickmann and Kim D. Todd has a lot of background information on this and many other topics of the early days of computing in the United States from her point of view. Jean was a member of the initial team of programmers of the ENIAC, the first fully electronic computer in the mid-1940s and could thus witness this and many other events first hand and decided to set a number of things straight with her autobiography. Pretty much forgotten until many decades later, the first ENIAC programmer team consisted solely of female mathematicians as due to the war there was a shortage of male mathematicians and the boys were more interested in building the computing machines than to program them. Pioneer Programmer intends not to only set the record straight but also to tell the story of how women shaped early computing and to describe the difficulties they had in a male dominated scientific world in the US and Europe during that time and the decades afterward. A fascinating story that starts with her childhood on a farm in rural America and ends with the jobs and positive as well as negative experiences she had in the computing industry as a woman in the decades after leaving the ENIAC behind.

Probably not a very well known book but for those who are interested in the facts behind the stories of early computing a must read that I’ve very much enjoyed reading!