Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII

Feb 14 2011 Published by under computing history, women

In 1942, when computers were human and women were underestimated, a group of female mathematicians helped win a war and usher in the modern computer age. Sixty-five years later their story has finally been told.

Fabulous, fabulous, fabulous! There is a new documentary called Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of World War II about female mathematicians and scientists who were secretly recruited to do ballistics research and crack codes during WWII. (They were called "Female Computers", back in the days when "computer" meant "one who computes")

Unsurprisingly, because the research was classified, the efforts of these women went largely unsung until Professor LeAnn Erickson, faculty at Temple, made a documentary about them.

CNN has a nice write up about the film, and includes an anecdote about work on the ENIAC (the other "first" computer). Though, this part made me cringe:

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, they heard they were thought of as models, placed there to show off the machine.

I'd like to think we've come a long way since 1945, but I have heard recent stories of female technologists demonstrating things at technology shows whom male attendees assume are booth babes, so maybe we're not quite there yet.

In any case, if you are interested in seeing the film, the creators have several screenings scheduled, and are planning more. Also I believe you can rent it on Netflix. Or, check your local PBS listings.

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