Frances Spence was born Frances Bilas in 1922 in Philadelphia. She attended South Philadelphia High School for Girls, then Temple University and then Chestnut Hill College where she received a scholarship. She graduated from Chestnut Hill College with a major in mathematics in 1942.
In 1942 the US Army hired Frances Bilas to be a part of a team of 80 women employed to manually calculate ballistic trajectories at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at University of Pennsylvania. Later in the war, this number grew in size as more women were recruited as “computers,” the name given this particular job position.
In 1945, the Army initiated an experimental project at the Moore School whose aim was to build an all-electronic computer, the first of its kind, to automate these ballistic calculations. Frances Spence was hired to work on the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) project along with five other women also drawn from the team of women computers who had been doing manual ballistic calculations. It is at this point around 1945, as Jennifer Light notes in her 1999 essay, “When Computers Were Women,” that the term “computer” shifts from the name of the job done by a human being (usually a woman) to a name for a machine.
In this early task of programming the ENIAC to take over the ballistic calculations, Frances Bilas Spence and the other five programmers– Kathleen McNulty Antonelli, Jean Jennings Bartik, Frances “Betty” Holberton, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum–had to determine how to input programs figured out on paper into the machines complex field of over 1200 ten-way switches and voluminous cables. To program the machine, the women had to develop a deep understanding of the machine’s structural mechanics and to solve and trouble shoot problems.
In this moment of technical innovation, hardware was viewed as the primary invention and the programmers job was assigned subprofessional status. As such, the contibutions of these six brilliant programmers fell almost entirely out of the historical record. Many historians apparently misunderstanding their visible presence in the photographs as merely decorative publicity.
In 1985, a young computer programmer named Kathy Kleiman was searching for women role models and discovered the role of the ENIAC programmers. In this find, she also discovered that the six had not only been erased from the publicity surrounding the unveiling of the ENIAC project in 1946 but had also been excluded from recognition at the ENIAC’s 50th anniversary. Kleiman initiated a documentary project called the ENIAC Programmers Project, http://eniacprogrammers.org, and has been a tireless advocate for recognition of the progammers.
Three of the six programmers are marked sculpture, If They Should Ask, along with Adele Goldstine, who made critical contributions to the ENIAC project including teaching the six in preparation for their work as programmers.
Kathleen McNulty Antonelli, http://www.iftheyshouldask.com/kathleen-mcnulty-antonelli/
Marlyn Meltzer, http://www.iftheyshouldask.com/maryln-meltzer/
Adele Goldstine, http://www.iftheyshouldask.com/adele-goldstine/
The other three programmers are excluded from the object simply for lack of space on the sculpture. They are: Jean Jennings Bartik, Frances “Betty” Holberton and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum.