Top Secret Rosies: Rediscovering WWII’s female ‘computers’

February 10, 2011 at 11:44 am 3 comments

Thanks to Fred Martin for forwarding this link.  What a great story!  Have to get the DVD.

Jean Jennings Bartik was one of the women computers. In 1945, she was a recent graduate of Northwest Missouri State Teachers College, the school’s one math major. She lived on her parents’ farm, refusing the teaching jobs her father suggested, avoiding talk of marrying a farmer and having babies. Bartik was waiting on a job with the military…

She learned the hand calculations, and saw the clunky old analyzer used to speed up the process. Its accuracy depended on the work of her colleagues, and a mechanic who serviced its belts and gears.

The war ended in 1945, but within a couple months of arriving in Philadelphia, Bartik was hired to work on a related project — an electronic computer that could do calculations faster than any man or woman. The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, created by Penn scientists John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert Jr., weighed more than 30 tons and contained about 18,000 vacuum tubes. It recognized numbers, added, subtracted, multiplied, divided and a few other basic functions.

Men had built the machine, but Bartik and her colleagues debugged every vacuum tube and learned how to make it work, she said. Early on, they demonstrated to the military brass how the computer worked, with the programmers setting the process into motion and showing how it produced an answer. They handed out its punch cards as souvenirs. They’d taught the massive machine do math that would’ve taken hours by hand.

But none of the women programmers was invited to the celebratory dinner that followed. Later, the heard they were thought of as models, placed there to show off the machine.

via Rediscovering WWII’s female ‘computers’ – CNN.com.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  February 10, 2011 at 11:58 am

    My first boss (in the Air Force) was one of the next generation of these ladies (from the 50s), and she was really good.

    Back then (50 years ago), there were quite a few women programmers and computerists, both in the military (usually as civilians GS ratings) and in large companies (such as IBM).

    Cheers,

    Alan

    Reply
  • 2. Mark Miller  |  February 11, 2011 at 8:09 pm

    I’ve known for a while that women programmed the ENIAC. I can’t remember where I learned that, though. The documentary “The Machine That Changed The World” features an interview with Kay Mauchly Antonelli, one of the human computers who calculated shell firing trajectories for WW II. She talked about the process, and indirectly talked about programming the ENIAC. Though it does not explicitly say “Women programmed the ENIAC,” it infers it by Antonelli saying, “They showed us how to do this,” and, “We did this to accomplish that” with the machine. It shows movie reel footage of women working with it, and communicated the message more by implication. You can see the segment with Antonelli in the first episode, “Great Brains”.

    The link I provide here gives an interesting history of the documentary. It was jointly produced by a PBS affiliate and the BBC. It was first shown in the UK under the title, “The Dream Machine” (interesting, since there’s a book on Licklider and the history-making works with computers that he, and other people he knew, were involved in that went by the same name!). It was shown on PBS in 1992.

    Being someone who enjoyed TV shows on computers when I was younger, as documentaries go, I consider “The Machine That Changed The World” to be the best one on overall computer history so far. Not to say that it’s the best way to learn the subject, but in the genre I think it’s really good. Unfortunately it went out of print some years ago. From what I understand it’s only available in a few libraries. The link I provide is to a version that was digitized and put online by some volunteers. It’s also available as an MP4, which you can download via. Bittorrent. This is the only way most people can see it now.

    In a way what this points out is that history is lost by people either missing accounts of it, and those accounts fading away, or suffering from amnesia.

    It is striking, though, to read in the CNN article that none of the female programmers was recognized for their contribution at the time, that they were just thought of as “models” who were demonstrating the machine to dignitaries, though it does point out that most people paid attention to the hardware and its designers, not the programmers. This is a problem that I encountered when I first started researching computer history when I was in Jr. high school, in the early 1980s. All of the focus was on the problem of human computation, and how hardware solved the problem. There was very little focus on the programmers who worked with the hardware, or software innovations, except to mention Ada Lovelace, and the development of a few programming languages in the 1950s and 60s that were adopted by academia and business. Programmers and software generally got short shrift in the history books, which I’ve recently come to realize caused me to miss a significant amount of computer history in my early research.

    Reply
  • 3. A history lesson on government R&D, Part 1 « Tekkie  |  June 21, 2011 at 5:26 am

    […] out on DVD now called “Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of World War II” (h/t to Mark Guzdial) for anyone who’s interested in learning more about this. There’s also a segment on […]

    Reply

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