“These computers, these ladies that computed these firing tables – it was absolutely vital work. And without their contributions to the war effort, we would have lost World War II. We could not have won World War II without that data.”
-Dr. William F. Atwater, Military Historian
The documentary “Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of World War II” introduces us to the women computers of WWII – women who were recruited to help calculate ballistics trajectories in order to create trajectory tables that were shipped to troops around the world. Back then, a computer meant a person who did calculations as a job. During WWII, with men overseas, women saw expanding opportunities in the workplace. These female computers were recruited from the mathematics departments of colleges and asked to interview for the Pennsylvania Computing Section, a ballistics lab in the Moore School of Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania.
These trajectory problems required thousands of calculations and the solving of differential equations. A 60 second shell trajectory problem took a human around 40 hours to complete. Six women were assigned to work on a differential analyzer, which completed the same problem in 15 minutes. These women worked hard, knowing that the soldiers in the field relied upon the manuals they sent out. They worked double or triple shifts if necessary and took no vacations.
Later on, some of these women became programmers on ENIAC, the world’s first electronic computer. When ENIAC was designed, the women were invited to interview to be programmers since they had been involved in the human computing work. Two of them worked day and night to program the press demonstration of ENIAC, which was held in February 1946. However, these women did not always receive the recognition they deserved. Of the demonstration, Dr. Jennifer S. Light says, “Many of the men engineers received publicity, while the female computers and programmers did not. As far as the official publicity that was staged in February 1946 that was organized by the war department and pretty tightly controlled in terms of what journalists and other people attending saw, Betty Jean Jennings and Betty Snyder developed the demonstration trajectory program. Again, they were the ones who made the machine do the things that we all got very excited about, but their participation was never mentioned in either war department press releases or later news reports that relied on those publicity materials.”
These women made massive contributions to the war effort, but went largely unrecognized. This documentary pays homage to these great women. They were eager to help and to put their skills to use in whatever ways they could.
In addition to showing us that these women had serious mathematical chops, we also get the opportunity to see how they worked together, how they felt about their work, and what their lives were like during this time. These women grew very close while working on this project. Betty Jean Jennings, one of the ENIAC programmers, said, “Well I’ve always said that I was the luckiest person in the world because of working on the Eniac with these women that I really came to love and admire and respect and I had so much fun with them.” It is clear that they cherished the opportunity to participate. But while the women computers knew their work was important, they also understood the gravity of what they were calculating. One computer, Doris Blumberg Polsky, said “For many, many years, even when my older children were certainly old enough to understand what we did during the war effort, I never discussed it with them. I never mentioned ballistics, I never mentioned the unit or anything like that, and it kind of came as a surprise to them when we finally opened up and told them what we did during the war. I didn’t feel – I still don’t feel – that it’s something I can kind of brag about. This was a tough thing to get your mind set on and accept for yourself.”
Throughout history, women have not always been able to contribute because of a lack of opportunity and gender stereotypes standing in their way. When World War II provided the opportunity, these women rose to the challenge without hesitation, and poured everything they had into the important project at hand. “Top Secret Rosies” is a compelling and informative documentary, teaching us about WWII, and those women who contributed behind the scenes in integral ways. In 1997, the female ENIAC programmers were inducted into the Women in Technology Hall of Fame.
If you are interested in watching “Top Secret Rosies”, it is available for instant watch on Netflix, or you can attend one of the screenings listed on their website. For anyone in NYC, there is a screening at Hunter College’s Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute on March 17th at 6:30pm.