Kathleen “Kay” McNulty was born in 1921 in Ireland. She came with her parents to Pennsylvania in 1924, settling in Chestnut Hill. She attended Hallahan Catholic Girls High School in Philadelphia and then Chestnut Hill College, a women’s college until 2001. McNulty graduated in 1942 with a major in mathematics. She and Frances Bilas (later Frances Bilas Spence), another of the ENIAC programmers, were among on 3 students to graduate with a degree in mathematics among the 92 other graduates.
McNulty responded to an ad in the Philadelphia Inquirer looking for women with degrees in mathematics to work for the US Army at the Moore School of Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. She recruited her friend Frances Bilas to join her in applying and in 1942 the US Army hired McNulty and Bilas to be a part of a team of 80 women employed to manually calculate ballistic trajectories as part of a project run by the Army’s Ballistic Research Laboratory at the Moore School. 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. Kay McNulty 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, Kathleen McNulty Antonelli and the other five programmers– Jean Jennings Bartik, Frances “Betty” Holberton, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Frances Bilas Spence 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.
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.
Frances Spence, http://www.iftheyshouldask.com/frances-spence/
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.