Message Font: Serif | Sans-Serif

No. of Recommendations: 12
So my new issue of American Heritage Magazine arrived today, and with it the article "Top Secret Rosies." The title is a play off World War II's Rosie the Riveter(s), except these other Rosies were in a different wartime activity altogether.

In an earlier day combatants were face to face or within musket or pistol eyeshot, but with the advent of howitzers and artillery and bombs falling from airplanes, it became harder and harder to find, much less hit the enemy. Often the artillery couldn't see what they were targeting and had no idea if their shells were falling anywhere close to the intended destination. Bombardiers were tens of thousands of feet in the sky, often at night, and might as well have been throwing darts at a wall as trying to drop explosives on factories.

Enter mathematics and the calculation of trajectories, drop points, elevation angles and muzzle velocities. Add in wind direction and speed and even humidity and you have some idea of the host of variables involved in trying to get a shell to the target.

Even before Pearl Harbor the Army was working on new artillery and infantry weapons, and engineers crunched numbers with a Bush differential analyzer, a 30-foot long mechanical calculating machine developed at MIT in the 1930's. Others, not privy to the latest technological innovations, laboriously compiled projectile tables using pencil, paper, and adding machines. These people were called "computers", in the same way that people at other jobs were called "typists" or "machinists": as a description of what they did.

As it turned out, in 1941 men went off to war and women were left behind, and a sudden hole was left in the field of figuring out how to drop bombs and aim artillery. The Army, in a panic, called on the University of Pennsylvania's Moore Engineering School (which had a Bush calculator), and together they and the military put out a call for the most immediately available mathematical talent: young women with a gift for numbers.

The administrations of dozens, and later hundreds of high schools got the Army SOS, and a cadre of young women was assembled who could learn the functions and do the work, and they were called "computers." Scores of women were involved, first from the close environs, but eventually from New York, New England, and as far as the Midwest. As the article notes: "The recruits dove right in, learning the specialized mathematical differentiation and integration techniques involved in ballistics calculations."

The women were sworn to secrecy, as were the men at Los Alamos, and little of their story has become known even today. The first "computers" were human beings, mostly female, who labored without recognition (or much pay) and helped with the war effort in the early 1940's. So closed was the information flow between themselves and the soldiers that they rarely knew anything about the conflict happening thousands of miles away. Occasionally they could divine clues, such as from topographic readings and wind velocities, coupled with headlines from newspapers weeks later, but mostly they worked without knowing how their output was used, or even if it was used at all.

The war, of course, eventually was won, thanks in no small part to the work of the females who came to service when called and performed the jobs which needed to be done.

There's a sad post-script to the story: The effort of these computing women continued even after the war as the War Department aided in the formation and planning for a transition from mechanical calculation machines to electronic ones, and the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, commonly known as ENIAC debuted on the Penn campus in 1946. While the guts of the "giant brain" were sketched out by two men, the implementation was done in fair measure by the women who understood the mechanical mathematical functions which the machine was designed to emulate.

Those women, a few of whom are outlined in the article, became ENIAC's first "programmers", the people who designed the script, or "program" the machine was to follow. Over time the word "computers" devolved to mean the machine, not the people, a change that lasts through our modern day.

In short order the women were replaced by men; indeed, in two-dimensional foreshadow of the three-dimensional reality to follow, the first picture of ENIAC carried by the New York Times showed several women and one man at the machine; as the picture was reproduced in other papers and later in books, the women were cropped out of the shot and only the single, lone male stood before the hulking machine. So it was in real life, too, as men swiftly replaced women in the industry, to the point where today when we think of humans "programming" "computers" the image we conjure is of young men with a bag of potato chips working in solitary environment at the keyboard.

It began quite differently, with Rosie the Computer, dozens and dozens of them learning the arcane business of artillery shells and bomb trajectories, and later transferring a fair part of that knowledge to a new industry, and then, like their Rosie the Riveting sisters, departing for the stifled and solitary home life of American women in the 1950's.
` `