May 12, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

March is Women’s History month, so at I, Science we are highlighting some of the incredible women who have contributed to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and maths - who have often been overlooked in our textbooks.
File:Betty Holberton.jpg
Betty Holberton
Image Source: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Despite originally training as a journalist, Betty Holberton was chosen to be a “computer” for the US Army in WWII – calculating ballistic trajectories involving complex differential equations. Following this, she was one of six women who programmed the first all-electronic digital computer, ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), to continue calculating the ballistic trajectories. It was able to make the same calculation a human could make in twenty hours in 30 seconds.  

After WWII, Holberton worked at the company Remington Rand and at the US National Bureau of standards. During these roles, she worked on the first two revisions of the FOURTRAN programming language. She also wrote the statistical analysis package that was used in the 1950 US census.  

Later, she worked on BINAC (Binary Automatic Computer) – the first commercial digital computer in the world. Holberton worked with programmer John Mauchly to develop the C-10 instruction set for BINAC, which is now considered to be the prototype of all modern programming languages.