Females in Tech: A Look Back at ENIAC

Visiting ENIAC

At the University of Pennsylvania, 40 panels are on display from the forty ton ENIAC. The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer announced on 1946 by the New York Times is funded by the United States military. It is so large, it fills a 30′ by 50′ room. Designed to calculate missile trajectories, it could calculate 5,000 instructions per second. For reference, the modern iPhone X weighs 0.3836 pounds and can calculate up to 600 billion instructions per second. Despite that difference in computational power, the ENIAC is very impressive for the time and later was used in the development of the hydrogen bomb. Both men and women contributed to the ENIAC, however, mostly only the men were featured in the media at that time.

Image credit: University of Pennsylvania Engineering

Readdressing History

Luckily, several institutions including the University of Pennsylvania have made efforts recently to acknowledge these women. The six most remarkable women were: Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Jean Jennings Bartik, Frances (Betty) Snyder Holberton, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Frances Bilas Spence, and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum. These women were thought of as operators although their tasks were arduous, technical, and creative. These tasks include plugging in cables, setting switches, and partnering with scientists to write programs executed by punch cards.

The term “operator” downplays their role and hides the need to see beyond abstractions. They were enrolled in or recently graduated from Universities with relevant coursework degrees and chosen for their competence. The devaluation of women is reflected in society and can be observed surfacing on an individual level. In an interview with Jean Bartik she quotes Betty Holberton to say: “Look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man, and work like a dog.” Even though this piece of advice for women at the time is said with humor and self awareness, it is still telling.

Certainly there are many brilliant men that are worth admiring, but what of the many female academic role models. It is important to recognize the accomplishments of women in order to inspire more young minds to visualize themselves contributing to the next technological advancement.

Acknowledgements

  • “ENIAC at Penn Engineering.” Penn Engineering, 2017, https://www.seas.upenn.edu/about/history-heritage/eniac/.
  • Guru, iPhone. “IPhone X as the Sum of Technologies: IGotOffer.” IGotOffer Blog, 5 Nov. 2017, https://igotoffer.com/blog/iphone-x-sum-technologies#:~:text=This%20is%20reportedly%20the%20AI,second%20for%20real%2Dtime%20processing.
  • Hines, Nickolaus. “The World’s First Computer Was Bigger than a T-Rex and 5 Million Times Weaker than an IPhone.” All That’s Interesting, All That’s Interesting, 9 Mar. 2016, https://allthatsinteresting.com/first-computer.
  • Jones, Brad, and Luke Larsen. “Long before Gates or Jobs, 6 Women Programmed the First Digital Computer.” Digital Trends, Digital Trends, 1 Mar. 2019, https://www.digitaltrends.com/computing/remembering-eniac-and-the-women-who-programmed-it/.

Don’t Bother Remembering Passwords

Security and Convenience

I watched my father try to log into his Apple account and the experience was “painful”. He was denied time after time just when thinking he had recalled the right combination of characters. In fear of being locked out of his account because of too many tries, he went for the “Forgot my password” route.

Sometimes this path is implemented with the user in mind and involves a simple link to reset the password via email. Other times, it is a lengthier process involving multiple security questions. Questions that you thought the answer could only be one thing, but against all odds it is not currently working. There must be an easier way.

Characteristics of Strength

Experts recommend that a password be more than ten characters in length. Contain a variety of characters: uppercase, lowercase, numbers, and symbols. The passwords should not contain patterns, recognizable words, or anything else that is easy to guess[1]. Yes, I am talking to you if your password is “password123”. It is also advisable that passwords are not re-used from site to site. Be ready to remember seventy plus strings of near random characters. This is of course an unreasonable expectation, but there is a solution.

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Password Managers to the Rescue

If you already use a password manager, please take this time to give yourself a pat on the back. Password managers have existed for over ten years. However, there are still many people who are not taking advantage of them. Many are free and open source like Bitwarden or KeePass. The idea is that you only need to remember one password and the manager keeps track of the rest. Typically they can also generate very strong passwords too. Passwords are always encrypted or hashed so the plain text versions of the passwords are not stored.

Encryption is a two way process involving a private key that the user can decrypt the cipher-text version of their password. On the other hand, hashing is deterministic meaning the algorithm produces the same result for the same input at a fixed length [2]. It is considered to be irreversible. Generally, hashing is done many times; Sometimes over 10,000 passes or 100,000 depending on the manager. I hope your interest is piqued about considering a password manager, if you were on the fence. Technology should simplify our lives, not add more stress.

Learn Efficiently, Depart from Tutorials

Calling all Tutorial Fanatics

When diving into a new skill or unfamiliar task, a natural response is to try to find a reference video. Youtube is a popular site, but there are many others. Perhaps you have felt the thrill of finding the “perfect” video to explain everything you need to know about topic X. It does not matter whether X is a certain library function in a programming language, a completely new framework, or even a step-by-step guide on swing dancing. Surely, by the end of this 20 minute (or 6 hour) video, you can achieve mastery of the topic.

Disappointing Denouement

It is possible that after watching a single online video that the task can be completed with confidence; More often than not, this is not the case. For anyone following along with a multiple hour long lesson, it can be disappointing to realize that there is a gap in the knowledge when it is time to apply the information on your own project. Most tutorials seem to boil down to the common theme of “just do it”.

Leave Tutorials Behind

Before pouring hours of time into watching tutorials or previewing documentation, there is an optimal amount of time to spend on preparation. Everyone learns skills differently at their own pace. However, most people can agree that it is not worth spending unnecessary time on something without a large benefit. There is some satisfaction in having “completed” a tutorial. Not everyone has the luxury of time to devote to that.

Skill of Set up and Go

This is where the skill of gathering just as much information from a tutorial to get started comes in to play. Leave the door open for experimentation and testing boundaries. Any further questions that may come up can be answered along the way without wasting time on things that are intuitive. When time is precious, hands on experience will prove more valuable than the facade of experience from a code along video in the long run. Use your time wisely!