Obit - Frances Holberton, 84; Pioneer Programmer of Early Computers
Sun, 16 Dec 2001 15:22:34 -0800
Frances Holberton, 84; Pioneer Programmer of Early Computers
Frances "Betty" Snyder Holberton, 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, has died. She was 84.
Holberton, who died Dec. 8 in Rockville, Md., had suffered a stroke and was
Late in life, 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, 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 revolutionized
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,
Holberton continued to push to make computers easier for general use,
Kathryn A. Kleiman observed in writings about Holberton.
It was Kleiman's research, first as a young programmer and later as a lawyer
and documentary maker, that brought Holberton recognition and national
honors in the 1990s as a pioneer of computer science. Holberton appears in a
photograph that is part of the Univac exhibit at the National Museum of
Born in Philadelphia, Holberton 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 economic
When men were diverted to wartime service, the Army recruited Holberton and
about 80 other female mathematicians to compute ballistics trajectories by
hand and with desktop calculators at the University of Pennsylvania.
The women, classified as subprofessionals 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 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
"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."
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.
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 1983.
Survivors include her husband of 51 years, John Vaughan Holberton of
Rockville; two daughters, Priscilla Holberton of Silver Spring, Md., and
Pamela Holberton of Rockville; two sisters; and a brother.