Born in Philadelphia in 1917 as Frances Elizabeth Snyder Holberton, the left-handed
young girl grew up ridicule
d by her classmates. Her parents and grandparents, both astronomer
s, encouraged her to study mathematics
but a University of Pennsylvania
math professor discouraged her, saying that women should be home raising children
. She majored in English and journalism instead, and worked for the Farm Journal
compiling economics statistics
When men were pressed into military service at the beginning of World War II, the Army recruited female mathematicians - Holberton among them - to compute ballistics trajectories. The women were called "computers" and classified as sub-professionals as they worked on equations that took more than 30 hours to solve. In an effort to speed up calculations, the Army sponsored a project to create a digital computer. Holberton and five other women were chosen to develop the ENIAC, and despite a lack of manuals they taught themselves to program. Holberton's responsibility was the central unit of ENIAC, and the group completed the project in 1946.
Holberton left Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1947, and joined the Eckert-Mauchly Electronic Control Company to work on the development of UNIVAC; she later said her design of the UNIVAC 1's instruction code and C-10 code was her best accomplishment. She played an active role in the design of COBOL and FORTRAN, working at the National Bureau of Standards until her retirement in 1983. In 1997, the Association for Women in Computing honored her with its Ada Lovelace Award; that same year she was inducted into the WITI Hall of Fame by Women In Technology International. Renowned programmer Grace Hopper said that the pioneering Holberton was the best programmer she had ever known.
Betty Holberton died on December 8, 2001 at an assisted living home in Rockville, MD. She had diabetes and had also suffered a stroke, but was survived by her husband of 51 years and their two daughters.