Betty Holberton

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Betty Holberton
Betty Holberton.jpg
Frances Elizabeth Snyder

(1917-03-07)March 7, 1917
DiedDecember 8, 2001(2001-12-08) (aged 84)
EducationUniversity of Pennsylvania
OccupationComputer Scientist
Employer- Moore School of Engineering
- Remington Rand
- National Bureau of Standards
- David Taylor Model Basin
Known forENIAC
Spouse(s)John Vaughan Holberton
ChildrenPriscilla Holberton
Pamela Holberton

Frances Elizabeth Holberton (March 7, 1917 – December 8, 2001) was one of the six original programmers of the first general-purpose electronic digital computer, ENIAC. Holberton invented breakpoints in computer debugging.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Programmers Betty Jean Jennings (left) and Fran Bilas (right) operate the ENIAC's main control panel.

Holberton was born Frances Elizabeth Snyder in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1917.

Holberton studied journalism, because its curriculum let her travel far afield.[2] Journalism was also one of the few fields open to women as a career in the 1940s.[3] On her first day of classes at the University of Pennsylvania, Holberton's math professor asked her if she wouldn't be better off at home raising children.[3]


Betty Holberton (right foreground) programming the ENIAC computer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, BRL building 328 (1940s/1950s)

During World War II while the Army needed to compute ballistics trajectories, many women were hired for this task. Holberton was hired by the Moore School of Engineering to work as a "computor" and chosen to be one of the six women to program the ENIAC. Classified as "subprofessionals", Holberton, along with Kay McNulty, Marlyn Wescoff, Ruth Lichterman, Betty Jean Jennings, and Fran Bilas, programmed the ENIAC to perform calculations for ballistics trajectories electronically for the Ballistic Research Laboratory (BRL), US Army.

In the beginning, because the ENIAC was classified, the women were only allowed to work with blueprints and wiring diagrams in order to program it. During her time working on ENIAC she had many productive ideas that came to her overnight, leading other programmers to jokingly state that she "solved more problems in her sleep than other people did awake."[4]

The ENIAC was unveiled on February 15, 1946, at the University of Pennsylvania.[5][6] It had cost around $487,000, equivalent to $7,195,000 in 2019.[6]

After World War II, Holberton worked at Remington Rand and the National Bureau of Standards. She was the Chief of the Programming Research Branch, Applied Mathematics Laboratory at the David Taylor Model Basin in 1959. She helped to develop the UNIVAC, designing control panels that put the numeric keypad next to the keyboard and persuading engineers to replace the Univac's black exterior with the gray-beige tone that came to be the universal color of computers.[7]

She was one of those who wrote the first generative programming system (SORT/MERGE). Holberton used a deck of playing cards to develop the decision tree for the binary sort function, and wrote the code to employ a group of ten tape drives to read and write data as needed during the process.[8] She wrote the first statistical analysis package, which was used for the 1950 US Census.

In 1953 she was made a supervisor of advanced programming in a part of the Navy’s Applied Math lab in Maryland, where she stayed until 1966.[4] Holberton worked with John Mauchly to develop the C-10 instruction set for BINAC, which is considered to be the prototype of all modern programming languages. She also participated in the development of early standards for the COBOL and FORTRAN programming languages with Grace Hopper.[9] Later, as an employee of the National Bureau of Standards, she was very active in the first two revisions of the Fortran language standard ("FORTRAN 77" and "Fortran 90").


She died on December 8, 2001 in Rockville, Maryland, aged 84, due to heart disease, diabetes, and complications from a stroke she had suffered several years before.[4][10] She was survived by her husband John Vaughn Holberton and her daughters Pamela and Priscilla.[4]


In 1997 she was the only woman of the original six who programmed the ENIAC to receive the Augusta Ada Lovelace Award, the highest award given by the Association of Women in Computing.[11]

Also in 1997, she received the IEEE Computer Pioneer Award from the IEEE Computer Society for developing the sort-merge generator which, according to IEEE, "inspired the first ideas about compilation."[11]

Also in 1997, she was inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame, along with the other original ENIAC programmers.[11]


Holberton School, a project-based school for software engineers based in San Francisco, was founded in her honor in 2015.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Abbate, Janet (2012), Recoding Gender: Women's Changing Participation in Computing, MIT Press, p. 32, ISBN 9780262018067
  2. ^ "Betty Holberton Video". Archived from the original on 2013-10-05. Retrieved 2012-06-05.
  3. ^ a b Gay, Martin (10 April 2018). Recent Advances and Issues in Computers. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 9781573562270 – via Google Books.
  4. ^ a b c d Lohr, Steve (Dec 17, 2001). "Frances E. Holberton, 84, Early Computer Programmer". NYTimes. Retrieved 16 December 2014. Frances Elizabeth Holberton, one of the first computer programmers, whose contributions to software over the years ranged from an early data-sorting program to helping develop the business programming language Cobol, died on Dec. 8 at a nursing home in Rockville, Md. She was 84.
  5. ^ "ENIAC Programmers Project". ENIAC Programmers Project.
  6. ^ a b "On Computers: historical development of computers".
  7. ^ Levy, Claudia (December 15, 2001). "Frances Holberton, 84; Pioneer Programmer of Early Computers". Los Angeles Times.
  8. ^ Beyer, Kurt (2012). Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age. London, Cambridge: MIT Press. p. 198. ISBN 9780262517263.
  9. ^ Fritz, W. Barkley (1996). "The Women of ENIAC" (PDF). IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. 8 (3): 17. doi:10.1109/85.511940.
  10. ^ "Computer pioneer Betty Holberton dies at 84". Government Computer News. January 7, 2002. Retrieved 2008-06-07. Frances “Betty” Snyder Holberton, a pioneer in programming languages and other aspects of computing, died Dec. 8 in Rockville, Md. She was 84.
  11. ^ a b c "ENIAC Programmers Project - Email List". 12 December 2008. Archived from the original on 12 December 2008.

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]