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Rediscovering WWII's female "computers"
February 8, 2011 3:55 PM   Subscribe

Rediscovering WWII's female "computers". While researching a documentary in Philadelphia, filmmaker LeAnn Erickson came across two women with a story she'd never heard before: thousands of women with advanced mathematical skills employed as "computers", working day and night during WWII to supply soldiers in the field with precise ballistics algorithms. Some of those women also went on to program ENIAC, the first general-purpose computer (previously). Erickson turned their stories into Top Secret Rosies, a documentary released to theaters last year and to DVD this month. One of those programmers, Betty Jean Jennings Bartik, spoke at length to the Computing History Museum in 2008. [youtube, 1:07:19] [via]
posted by Errant (32 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite

 
Femtats?
posted by KingEdRa at 4:03 PM on February 8, 2011 [7 favorites]


These women seem to get rediscovered every so often. It's definitely a cool story, but they've never really been lost. Feynman mentions them in his descriptions of building the first atomics bombs.

Ah yes: When Computers Were Human, from 2005. Another book on the topic.
posted by GuyZero at 4:11 PM on February 8, 2011 [7 favorites]


Somehow, I'm picturing a room full of 1940s women around a bridge table, speaking to each other in assembly language

"Betty, would you please MOV AH,09h"

"INT 21h, Sue."
posted by schmod at 4:15 PM on February 8, 2011 [15 favorites]


From watching the crib daily to making the daily crib.
posted by sourwookie at 4:20 PM on February 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


There is something very compelling and attractive about women with advanced mathematical skills employed as "computers", working day and night during WWII to supply soldiers in the field with precise ballistics algorithms.
posted by CNNInternational at 4:30 PM on February 8, 2011 [6 favorites]


This is very cool. I have a cousin who was one of these women. She was in charge of a whole floor full of women doing codebreaking calculations during the war. When we talk about security & intelligence issues, her favorite saying is "the best way to keep a secret is, 'there is no secret'". 50+ years after the war, that's about all she has to say about her time in the service. I am definitely getting this for her.
posted by scalefree at 4:37 PM on February 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's fun to realize that a "computer" used to be a person instead of a machine, and that almost every single one of them was a woman. Heck, "computing" was considered women's work.

In other words, computers with vocal outputs really should sound like Majel Barrett, not the HAL 9000.

And sadly, it's not a surprise that these women's contributions have been mostly forgotten. Look at the difference in how the women who actually programmed and ran (and reverse engineered) ENIAC were/are treated (in terms of prestige, awards, career, Wikipedia bios, etc.) compared to the men who assembled the machine.
posted by Asparagirl at 4:40 PM on February 8, 2011 [5 favorites]


Heh...my Dad retired from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory some years ago, after decades of work starting c. 1954. A few years ago we went to one of their Open Houses (highly recommended), and were looking at some of the exhibits in the front hall of the von Kármán auditorium. He pointed to a picture, and said "I remember them...they were our computers!"

It was a picture of a dozen or more young women, probably in their early 20s, in front of one of the buildings.
posted by foonly at 4:43 PM on February 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


These women seem to get rediscovered every so often. It's definitely a cool story, but they've never really been lost. Feynman mentions them in his descriptions of building the first atomics bombs.

It's "called keeping the memory alive". Kind of like a human harddisk.
posted by sour cream at 4:59 PM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


thousands of women with advanced mathematical skills employed as "computers", working day and night during WWII to supply soldiers in the field with precise ballistics algorithms.

Not to spoil anyone's revisionist fun, but that doesn't quite describe what they did. These women didn't have "advanced mathematical skills". They had time.

The military would hire hundreds of them to sit in a room all day long performing a single basic calculation (think "single digit addition with carry") all day long.

After weeks or months of this tedium, they would have generated a ballistics table, not algorithm (think of the trig tables in the appendix of your HS textbook) suitable for use in the field. An algorithm wouldn't have helped the boys abroad anyway, since most of them had only the most basic of math skills as well.

With a few notable exceptions, they also didn't "program" themselves for the task at hand. The performed a purely mechanical function and usually didn't even know what their labor would produce (beyond "something to help the troops"). That said, they did indeed do their part contributing to the war effort, and I in no way mean to minimize that. But don't glorify them as some sort of secret math geniuses.
posted by pla at 5:02 PM on February 8, 2011 [16 favorites]


These women are mentioned in the great 1991 history of computing documentary "The Machine That Changed the World," dug up and posted by MeFi's own waxpancake. Here's part 1, where the human computers are mentioned, including an interview with one of them (at 29:45).
posted by Hargrimm at 5:15 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I had an English professor who liked to boast that his father was a computer.
posted by jb at 5:22 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


(One person) rediscovering (something most of the rest of us already knew, namely) WWII female "computers"
posted by DU at 5:50 PM on February 8, 2011


He pointed to a picture, and said "I remember them...they were our computers!"

Kind of beats to shit the notion that an Ipad has form factor, doesn't it.
posted by CNNInternational at 6:26 PM on February 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


(One person) rediscovering (something most of the rest of us already knew, namely) WWII female "computers"

I do sincerely apologize that I have retrod over tremendously old ground. I found one previous post, which had not covered the new documentary (obviously) nor the interview with Batik. For my part, I did not know any of this, being at best a greenhorn historian, and so I thought others might enjoy hearing about the topic as well. It appears I was wrong about that; oh well, them's the breaks.
posted by Errant at 7:28 PM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


typo: not Batik, Bartik. 3-minute window, wherefore art thou unimplemented.
posted by Errant at 7:30 PM on February 8, 2011


(One person) rediscovering (something most of the rest of us already knew, namely) WWII female "computers"

I dunno, I've never heard of this.
posted by shinyshiny at 7:45 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I do sincerely apologize that I have retrod over tremendously old ground.

Don't apologize. I think most programmers understand, at least in outline, that electronic computers replaced human computers, and that a lot of early programmers were former computers, but most people don't know that, and it is pretty fascinating,
posted by nangar at 8:16 PM on February 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


I wonder at the effect, if any, of the history of women in/and computation starting here.
posted by fake at 8:24 PM on February 8, 2011


Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace.
posted by Errant at 8:31 PM on February 8, 2011


I wonder at the effect, if any, of the history of women in/and computation starting here.

No, it goes at least as far back as the Harvard Computers starting in the 1870s -- and I would wager farther, if only in an unofficial capacity. The Harvard Computers' task was considered unskilled labor, but the job opened the door for four influential female astronomers.
posted by frobozz at 8:52 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


frobozz: Please name them, if you will. I don't know this history and I would be grateful for any direction.
posted by Errant at 9:17 PM on February 8, 2011


Sorry, I just got down to the middle part of your link. If those are the women you're referring to, I now have that info. My apologies.
posted by Errant at 9:20 PM on February 8, 2011


Bit of a derail; when I was working as a programmer, IBM mainframe world, the programmers (particularly the grayed ones, been pounding the keys for a while) almost always referred to the computer as 'He' -- "Okay, he's thinking about it now, he's going to give us this or that blah blah", it always struck me as unusual, a discord for sure -- it's not only not a he or she, it's a chunk of iron and silicon. But if I were to think of that puter setup as 'he' I would absolutely have to see him as an old frumped-out geekazoid gray-haired whackjob, futzy, dressed weirdly but sometimes cool, regardless weird. And writing this it seems pretty clear to me that I've used the programmers I worked with as my idea of what that puter was about, transferred my take on them as to my take on the puter. Which probably isn't terribly off base, truth be told...
posted by dancestoblue at 9:58 PM on February 8, 2011


There's a fascinating British equivalent to this, too: the women of Bletchley Park. You might or might not have known that 80% of the people working at the now-famous code-breaking operation were women, including quite a number of cryptologists -- including one who cracked Enigma long before anyone else.
posted by kyrademon at 1:18 AM on February 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


I sent this to my wife, who endured a lot of discrimination as a engineering/computer science student in the 70s.
posted by tommasz at 5:11 AM on February 9, 2011


Thanks for the post, Errant. I just added the film to my (sigh) saved Netflix queue.
posted by Carol Anne at 5:56 AM on February 9, 2011


Doris Day was a computer in That Touch of Mink.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:59 AM on February 9, 2011


I honestly didn't realise they were still doing ballistics tables by hand at the start of WWII. Isn't that exactly the job that Babbage's Difference Engine (c 1822) was meant to take out of human hands?
posted by Segundus at 8:34 AM on February 9, 2011


Babbage's difference engine was built for the first time a few years back. It had only ever been a design up to that point.

Also, on the point of these people never have been "lost", it's really just an issue of it being a less well-known corner of history. I think anyone with a reasonable understanding of the history of mechanical computation knows about these women but the history of computation isn't exactly the hugest field like, say, roman history or Egyptology which are both pretty well known. I think if more people learned industrial history in general they'd view the world a lot less as a magical place and more of a place where gradual change is continuously happening.
posted by GuyZero at 9:01 AM on February 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


I just added the film to my (sigh) saved Netflix queue.

While the DVD is not yet available on Netflix, I just discovered that it is available for instant viewing there.
posted by Errant at 10:02 AM on February 9, 2011


Thanks for the post. I posted about Pickering's computers after becoming fascinated by some of the stories of these women (particularly Wiliamina Fleming) involved in early computing (in both mathematics and astronomy).
posted by mothershock at 1:23 PM on February 9, 2011


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