Betty Holberton Dies; Helped U.S. Develop Computer Languages

By Claudia Levy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 11, 2001; Page B07

Frances "Betty" Snyder Holberton, 84, the software pioneer who programmed the groundbreaking ENIAC digital computer for the Army in the 1940s and later helped create the COBOL and FORTRAN languages used to operate the world's computers, died Dec. 8 at the Kingshire Manor assisted-living community in Rockville. She had suffered a stroke and had diabetes.

Late in life, Mrs. Holberton was credited for her efforts to make the language and equipment of programming user-friendly. After World War II, she created an instruction code, called C-10, that allowed for control of the new UNIVAC -- the first general-purpose computer -- by keyboarded commands rather than by dials and switches.

While engineers focused on the technology of computing, Mrs. Holberton lay awake nights thinking about human thought processes, she later told interviewers.

She came up with language using mnemonic characters that appealed to logic, such as "a" for add and "b" for bring. She designed control panels that put the numeric keypad next to the keyboard and persuaded engineers to replace the UNIVAC's black exterior with the gray-beige tone that came to be the universal color of computers.

UNIVAC was put to work during the 1950 Census, and it ultimately revolutionized business.

During the rest of her career, spent as a supervisory mathematician at the Navy's David Taylor Model Basin and the National Bureau of Standards, Mrs. Holberton continued to push to make computers easier for ordinary people to use, Kathryn A. Kleiman observed in writings about Mrs. Holberton.

It was Kleiman's research, first as a young programmer and later as a lawyer and documentary-maker, that finally brought Mrs. Holberton recognition and national honors in the 1990s as a pioneer of computer science. Mrs. Holberton appears in a photograph that is part of the UNIVAC exhibit at the National Museum of American History.

Mrs. Holberton, a longtime resident of Potomac, was born in Philadelphia. She was the daughter and granddaughter of astronomers, who encouraged her ability in mathematics. She hoped to major in the field at the University of Pennsylvania but was discouraged by a professor who thought that women belonged at home. She instead majored in English and journalism and worked initially for the Farm Journal, compiling information about consumer spending and guiding the magazine's economics statistics section.

When men were diverted to wartime service, the Army recruited Mrs. Holberton and about 80 other female mathematicians to compute ballistics trajectories by hand and with desktop calculators at the University of Pennsylvania.

The women, who were classified as sub-professionals and called "computers," worked on equations that took more than 30 hours to solve.

The Army sponsored a top-secret project to create an electronic digital computer that would speed up the calculations. The first special-purpose digital computer with regenerative memory had been invented by John Vincent Atanasoff at Iowa State College in 1937.

The Army chose six women, including Mrs. Holberton, to program the ENIAC, which weighed 30 tons and filled a room. The women had to route data and electronic pulses through 3,000 switches, 18,000 vacuum tubes and dozens of cables.

"There were no manuals," one of the women, Kay McNulty Mauchley Antonelli, later told Kathleen Melymuka for an interview in Computer World. "They gave us all the blueprints, and we could ask the engineers anything. We had to learn how the machine was built, what each tube did. We had to study how the machine worked and figure out how to do a job on it. So we went right ahead and taught ourselves how to program."

Mrs. Holberton took responsibility for the central unit that directed program sequences. Because the ENIAC was a parallel processor that could execute multiple program sections at once, programming the master unit was the toughest challenge of her 50-year career, she later told Kleiman.

By the completion of the ENIAC project in 1946, work that once took 30 hours to compute instead took 15 seconds.

Mrs. Holberton went on to work on UNIVAC programming for payrolls, inventory and other universal functions for the company begun by ENIAC's developers. It evolved into Sperry Univac and then Unisys.

She developed the first sorting route for UNIVAC and wrote a sort-generator application that allowed for customized programs.

While working at David Taylor and the National Bureau of Standards, she served with committees that created COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language), wrote standards for FORTRAN (Formula Translation) and set other national and international computer standards. She retired from the bureau, now the National Institute of Standards and Technology, in the 1983.

Her honors include the Lovelace Award of the National Association of Women in Computing.

Survivors include her husband of 51 years, John Vaughan Holberton of Rockville; two daughters, Priscilla Holberton of Silver Spring and Pamela Holberton of Rockville; two sisters; and a brother.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company Home top of page