Frances Spence was one of the six ‘computers’, along with Ruth Teitelbaum, Betty Holberton, Marlyn Meltzer, Kathleen McNulty and Jean Jennings Bartik, who were among the first programmers in the world.
Frances Spence was born in 1922, in Philadelphia, as Frances Bilas and was the second of five sisters. Her father was a district engineer for the Philadelphia Public School System and her mother was an elementary school teacher, who left her job to bring up her daughters and later returned to teaching. Frances graduated from South Philadelphia High School for Girls in 1938 and joined Temple University. Soon she was awarded a scholarship to Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, which she accepted. She did a major in mathematics and a minor in physics. It was at Chestnut Hill College that she met Kathleen McNulty, who was also mathematics major and they became best friends. Frances began to practice teaching at the Simon Gratz High School in Philadelphia, while still at college, with the intention of becoming a math teacher. However, immediately after graduation in 1942, she and McNulty were hired by the army to work at the Moore School of Engineering and later the ENIAC.
During the Second World War, when men were fighting in the war, the US army was hiring women to calculate ballistic trajectories. The Moore School at UPenn was funded by the US Army during the Second World War. Here a group of about 80 women worked manually calculating ballistic trajectories - complex differential calculations. These women were called ‘computers’. In 1945, the Army decided to fund an experimental project – an all-electronic digital computer and six of the women ‘computers’ were selected to be its first programmers. Among these six was Frances Spence.
The ENIAC was the first all-electronic digital computer, a huge machine of forty black 8-foot panels. The programmers had none of the programming tools of today and it was a challenge to make the ENIAC work. The six programmers had to physically conduct the ballistic program using 3000 switches and dozens of switches and digital trays to route the data and program pulses through the machine. They used analog technology to calculate ballistic trajectory equations. Initially the ENIAC was classified. In 1946, the ENIAC computer was unveiled before the public and the press. The six women were the only generation of programmers to program the ENIAC.
It was at the Moore School that Frances met Homer Spence, a soldier who worked as an electric engineer at the ENIAC. In 1947, she married him. The ENIAC had been moved to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds and soon Homer became the Chief of the Computer Research Branch. Meanwhile, Frances left her job to give birth to her first son. Later Homer took another job in New York and Frances too went to NY and spent her life as a homemaker raising their three sons. She did not return to full-time work in the computing field again.
The ENIAC ‘computers’ hardly received any recognition in their lifetime. In the male-dominated field of computer science and engineering, these women’s contributions were downplayed. In 1997, however, Frances Spence was inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame along with the other ENIAC programmers. Frances Spence died in 2012.
W. Barkley Fritz, ‘The Women of ENIAC’, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, Vol.18, No.3, 1996, pp. 13-28