She was a 'computer' and her name will live on at Cerner's new campus in south Kansas City

Kansas City Star |

--Just as the "Hidden Figures" movie showcased unheralded contributions of women mathematicians to the U.S. space program, a similar contributor will get a concrete remembrance in south Kansas City.

Literally.

One of the roadways being laid on the new Cerner Innovations campus will be Bartik Drive, named after Betty Jean Jennings Bartik, who worked on the world's first general-use programmable electronic computer.

Bartik, fresh out of Northwest Missouri State Teacher's College with a degree in mathematics, was one of six women "computers" -- that was the name of the job -- hired in 1945 for the top-secret military project now known as ENIAC.

In a twist of fate, it turns out that Cerner employee Kristen Landes Kasselman is Bartik's great-niece, and she learned of "Aunt Betty's" street-naming honor in a company-wide memo. Cerner chief operating officer Mike Nill last year shared a company committee's choices of 18 historic figures in technology and health care whose names will grace street signs on the 290-acre campus.

"Cerner's founder Neal Patterson has always said that Cerner is at the intersection of health care and technology, so we want that in our people's minds as they come to work," Nill said in a recent interview. "We wanted to created visible, tangible reminders."

About 700 Cerner engineers moved in earlier this month to the first tower built on the new campus, which stretches between 87th Street and Bannister Road immediately east of Interstate 435. Within a few weeks, about 3,000 engineers and other workers are to be relocated from another Cerner campus to occupy the first two Innovations towers.

"I was ecstatic to see her name on the street list," said Kasselman, whose job is to help new-employee orientation at Cerner. "Aunt Betty passed away before I started to work at Cerner, but of course I knew all about her."

Betty Jean Jennings Bartik, a farm girl from northwest Missouri with extraordinary math aptitude, pioneered a math degree at the Maryville college before she joined the ENIAC team during World War II.

After she graduated in 1945 at age 20, she wasn't hired at her first choice, IBM, but quickly landed at the University of Pennsylvania to work on ENIAC. Bartik, then still Jennings, worked on calculations to figure out artillery shell trajectories.

The women's work helped create a computer that could do in about 20 seconds what it took an individual mathematician up to 40 hours to do.

Bartik, who died in 2011 at age 86, has a computing museum named after her at Northwest Missouri State University, the current name of the school, which earned national headlines in 2009 for going to digital rather than bound textbooks.

Inducted in 2008 in the Computer Museum of History in Mountain View, Calif., Bartik also is remembered through a scholarship in her name at her alma mater. Beneficiaries are women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.



"My mom always thought it was important to highlight to women and girls that women had made important contributions to science and technology," said son Timothy Bartik. "She wanted people to know that women were there at the dawn of the computer age. They were among the first programmers. They were role models."

While Bartik Drive has yet to be completed, the first Cerner engineers and others to work on the new campus arrived . They moved into Building 1024, an address that doesn't align with any post office reasoning. Rather, it's a power-of-two address that relates to other buildings planned on the campus.

Power of two? It's a math functionality common to computer science and math. The number 1024 reflects 2 to the 10th power. The tower under construction next door is Building 2048, or 2 to the 11th power.

"It's true that these road names and building numbers will only be used by Cerner associates," Nill wrote in his earlier Cerner memo. "And that's alright, because they will mean the most to these Cerner associates. We get excited about the details that showcase our work."

The current campus plan, stretching to 2020, calls for nine structures ranging from Building 32 (2 to the 5th power) up to Building 8192 (2 to the 13th).

Linking the buildings over the next few years will be nine drives named after computing pioneers and nine roads named after health care luminaries.

In addition to Bartik, drives on the southwest half of the Innovation campus will honor Alan Turing, Grace Hopper, Charles Babbage, George Boole, Donald Knuth, John von Neumann, Alonzo Church and Ada Lovelace.

The new roads on the northeast half are nods to Jonas Salk, Alexander Fleming, Percy Lavon Julian, Marie Curie, Louis Pasteur, Edward Jenner, Gertrude B. Elion, Florence Nightingale and Wilhem Röntgen.

Access to the Innovations campus is limited by security gates, so public traffic will rarely course the pioneers' pavements. But anyone passing on Interstate 435 can see other evidence of Cerner honoring a computing heritage. The facades of the first two towers are reminiscent of early computer punch cards.

And to get a measure of just how seriously the company pursued the technology theme, it chose 8779 Hillcrest as the official postal service address for the new campus.

For computer programmers, that might mean something. The company says that when converted to Unicode, an international encoding standard, 8779 equates to the symbol ?, which denotes three trails.

Three trails, at one time considered the possible name for the Innovations campus, is what many area residents call that vicinity, where westward pioneers crossed on the Santa Fe, Oregon and California trails.

Now, pioneers of another sort take the stage.

Diane Stafford: 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford

___

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