Betty Holberton

Early life and education • Career • Death • Awards • Legacy
The Woman of the Future

Early life and education

Holberton was born Frances Elizabeth Snyder in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1917. 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. Instead, Holberton decided to study journalism, because its curriculum let her travel far afield. Journalism was also one of the few fields open to women as a career in the 1940s

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


During World War II while the men were fighting, the Army needed the women to compute ballistics trajectories. Holberton was hired by the Moore School of Engineering to work as a "computor", and was soon 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. Their work on ENIAC earned each of them a place in the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame. 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. The ENIAC was unveiled on February 15, 1946, at the University of Pennsylvania. It had cost around $487,000, equivalent to $7,051,000 in 2018. 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. 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.[8] 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. 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. 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. 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. She was survived by her husband John Vaughn Holberton and her daughters Pamela and Priscilla

Four of the six workers women who worked in the ENIAC project include Betty Jean Jennings, Marlyn Wescoff, Kay McNulty, and on the bottom Betty Holberton


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


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