School of Computing staff members with McNulty Family

Family of the first female computer programmer, Kay McNulty, visit school named in her honour

In 2017, the Computing building at DCU was renamed the McNulty building in honour of Kay McNulty, a leading mathematician and computer programmer. Last week, the family of pioneering computer programmer Kay McNulty visited the DCU School of Computer to visit the building named in her honour. They met with staff and were given a tour of the facilities, and Kay McNulty’s daughter, Gini McNulty- Mauchly, presented a commemorative book about the ‘Irish mother of Irish computing’ to Dr Andrew McCarren, Head of School of Computing.

Kay was born on 12 February 1921 in Donegal. Her  father, a former officer with the Irish Republican Army, moved with his family to the United States in 1924. At school, Kay excelled in mathematics and earned a degree in the subject from Chestnut Hill College for Women in 1942. Only three women in her class of 92 students graduated in mathematics. In the same year, she and 75 other women were employed by the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Engineering as human ‘computers’ to help with the American war effort.

Kay and the other women calculated tables of numbers and calculated trajectories for shells and bullets, crucial information for soldiers using artillery guns. She was soon promoted to shift leader. 

At the same time, it was becoming apparent that analogue machines  could not improve much more and -  an ‘electronic calculating machine’ of sorts was required.

Engineers J Presper Eckert and John Mauchly, came up with the basic idea for the world’s first general purpose digital computer, called ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer). The enormous machine they created lacked any memory for instructions, which meant it quickly forgot the steps required for various calculations. The goal of the ENIAC was to calculate trajectories, so Kay McNulty and five other ‘human computers’ were brought in to work on improving the new system.

The women programmed ENIAC to perform the required calculations and their work led ENIAC to eventually performing the required calculations in 15 seconds. Kay McNulty worked on ENIAC for two more years before she married John Mauchly in 1948 and had five children with him. A few years after his death in 1980, she married photographer Severo Antonelli.