On International Women's Day, there's no better time to celebrate the legacy of this great Donegal woman.
Creeslough native Kay McNulty, who was one of the very first computer programmers in the world, is featured in a new book launched today. What have the Irish ever done for us? by author David Forsythe tells stories of dozens of native Irish people who have made their mark throughout history.
Local readers will be delighted to see STEM pioneer Kay McNulty Mauchly Antonelli’s name among the greats.
David said: “Kay just had to be included as she was one of the pioneers of computer programming and her achievements haven’t been recognised to the extent that they should have in my opinion. The fact that she was a woman at a time when opportunities were very limited for women in general make her even more remarkable.”
Born at the height of the Irish War of Independence in Creeslough, County Donegal, Kathleen (Kay) McNulty was the daughter of an IRA man, James McNulty.
On the very day she was born, February 12th 1921, Kay’s father was arrested and sent to prison in Derry for his activities in the war. He was released two years later and soon afterwards James, his wife Anne and their six children emigrated to the Philadelphia in the United States.
James established a successful masonry business in Pennsylvania and Kay attended the Hallahan Catholic Girls High School in Philadelphia where she showed a natural ability for mathematics.
Kay went on to study at the Chestnut Hill College for Women and graduated in 1942 with a degree in mathematics, one of only three women in a class of 92 to do so.
Not wanting to become a teacher, she sought out job opportunities where she could use her qualifications and secured a place at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. With the war in full swing, her job entailed calculating the trajectories for artillery firing tables, a time consuming but extremely important role.
Kay proved to be an excellent ‘computer’ and within a few months she was assigned to work on the differential analyser, at the time among the most powerful analogue computers in the world.
She once again proved herself to be highly capable at the complex work and was chosen to be part of the team to work on the newly developed ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer), the world’s first electronic general-purpose computer, a top secret project of the US military.
The new computer was able to carry out in seconds calculations that by hand would take 40 hours or more. The machine had no memory however and no manual so Kay and her colleagues had to program every instruction manually.
After the war the machine was moved to the US Army proving grounds in Aberdeen, Maryland and Kay continued working on the project. In 1948 she married the co-inventor of the ENIAC John Mauchly whose wife had tragically died in an accident. She raised his two children from his previous marriage along with five children of their own. She dedicated the next years of her life to raising a family in Pennsylvania but continued to maintain her interest in computing technology.
John went on to found one of the world’s first commercial computing companies and Kay helped her husband with his designs both for hardware, software and in developing programming languages. In 1980 John died and Kay began to look for recognition for his role in the development of computing, giving several interviews and attending conferences and lectures on the subject.
In 1985 she married the Italian photographer Severo Antonelli and the couple were together for 10 years until he died in 1995. In 1997 she was inducted into the Women In Technology International (WITI) Hall of Fame and she also took part in a documentary about the ENIAC project and its influence. She died in 2006 in Pennsylvania following a short battle with cancer at the age of 85.
In her native Donegal, the Letterkenny Institute of Technology established the annual Kay McNulty medal and prize for the best computer science student in her memory and in 2016 Dublin City University re-named their computer science building in her honour.
What have the Irish ever done for us? is published by Currach Books and is available from all good bookshops or online at www.currachbooks.com.