Word Count: 1,443
Review of film: Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers
When done? © 2010
Director: LeAnn Erickson
Length: 56 minutes
Availability: Netflix Instant Play only
This film is about some unsung heroines who helped the Allies to win World War II (WWII). In a way it was the math geeks who won the war.
In 1942 computers were people with math skills. Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Ordnance Corp, needed women with math skills to calculate the trajectories for every ballistic weapon in their arsenal. So the U. S. Army contracted with the Moore School of Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, to provide housing, food and workspace for this Top Secret job.
They initially recruited women who had just graduated from college with mathematical degrees. When that tactic didn't provide enough women they recruited recent high school graduates through their math departments. Adele Goldsteine and Mary Mauchly recruited and trained these gifted women. Interestingly, both of these women were married to U. of Penn professors. Herman Goldsteine and John Mauchly were involved in the creation of ENIAC, the first general purpose computer (which took up a whole room all by itself).
In June 1943, the Army contracted with the Moore School of Engineering to create the Electronic Numerical Integer and Computer (ENIAC). It was originally designed to calculate artillery firing tables for the Army, the job the Top Secret Rosies were doing. Like the female computers, work on ENIAC was Top Secret, with the code name “Project: PX.” It was finally completed and dedicated on February 14, 1946. The first job it did was to help with some of the calculations during the research for the “H” bomb. ENIAC was accepted by the U. S. Army Ordnance Corp in July 1946. In November 1946 it was shut down to be refurbished and transported to Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, where it was rebuilt and turned on in July 1947. ENIAC was in continuous operation until October 1955.1
In 1946, six women who had worked as female computers were transferred to work with ENIAC as the first computer programmers. They were:
- Kathleen McNulty (later Mauchly Antonelli)
- Betty Jean Jennings (later Jean Bartik)
- Betty Snyder (later Holberton)
- Marlyn Westcoff (later Meltzer)
- Frances Bilas (later Spence)
- Ruth Lichterman (later Teitelbaum)
“ Although a pivotal role in the rise of computers, [they] were given little credit toward the foundations of the ENIAC.”2
This film highlights what female computers did during WWII, told by a handful of people. Surprisingly some of these women kept their pledge not to tell a soul about what they did during WWII. So much so that even their husbands and immediate family were not told until recently. Could you imagine your mother in her 80s telling you that she computed ballistic trajectories during WWII?
As Rosie the Riveter, who built weapons, received recognition for the part she played in winning the war, the Top Secret Rosies sat at home in silence, not even invited to the celebrations. One of the reasons for failing to recognize them is that their male bosses took all the credit. In their eyes, what these women were doing were just “advanced clerical duties.”
Top Secret Rosies used heavy metal Marchant calculators which were old and noisy. No hand-held scientific calculators make of plastic with small push buttons like we have now. These Marchant math machines required considerable skill and a strong arm. And they were only capable of solving part of the equations for shell trajectories. Since these 300 pound projectiles were shot through the air, they required more complicated variables, so differential equations had to be used. Normally it would take a team of female computers about 40 hours to solve a single differential equation. But the Moore School of Engineering owned a Bush Differential Analyzer (BDA). A creation of MIT in 1925, it was still considered state-of-the-art in 1942. Made mostly of gears it would take 15 minutes to do a single equation. Once all of the equations were solved for a particular weapon, the results were put into a booklet of tables for gunnery personnel to use.
“ Rosie the Riveter may have made the WWII weapons but the Top Secret Rosies made them accurate.”3
“Mathematics was a crucial weapon in the U. S. arsenal. Women were it's secret practitioners.”
Our Top Secret Rosies were finally revealed in an article called, “Women Computers in World War II,” on the website for the IEEE Global History Network in August 2008.
On a Personal Note
I was initially drawn to this film because both my husband and I have worked with computers. My husband was a graduate student in astrophysics at the University of Pennsylvania and later worked for over 25 years in their IT department. He now works at another educational institution in Philadelphia in their IT department managing back up systems and disaster recovery.
During the Vietnam war, I was in the U. S. Army Nurse Corp. Although I never made it to Nam, I lived in Honolulu, HI, where I was stationed at Tripler Army Medical Center. Three weeks before an honorable discharge at the end of August 1971, I suffered a back injury, which developed into nerve damage, giving me a permanent chronic pain problem; as a result I'm a service-connected disabled veteran. I quit nursing in 1979 when I was recruited to work civil service for the Army.
From 1979 to 1990 I worked civil service and was trained in government procurement, as a contract specialist (I used to buy spare parts for Pershing missiles) and then worked headquarters (HQ) level as a procurement analyst. In the early 1980s several computer systems were being developed to help us create and manage solicitation and contractual instruments.
At HQ we were just becoming computerized and each of us had a PC on his desk. For use at home I personally purchased a Tandy computer from Radio Shack®. I then added a real-time clock and a 10 Mb hard drive. Back at the office, I developed a reputation as the person with all the answers, simply because I was the only one reading the instruction manuals. My boss sent me to Xenix Administrator training where I promptly learned that programming is not my gift. Programming takes a mathematical mind and I'm mathematically-challenged. But give me a program with a menu system and I'll get the job done, because that takes a language sense which I do have (at least according to my Spanish teacher).
I left HQ to work at one of our installations where a new UNIX-based computer system was being deployed called SAACONS. But one of SAACONS' weaknesses was how it dealt with clauses for solicitations and contracts. I developed a stand-alone database on my PC which sorted clauses by five separate parameters. It then created lists of clauses which I manually input into SAACONS. My database got me the 1989 Procurement Analyst of the Year award from my former office. In 1990, just as I was leaving to get married, the Pentagon picked up my database and tasked SAACONS' creator, CACI, Inc., to make it part of SAACONS. My database lives on today in SAACONS-Federal which is deployed at over 300 installations country-wide, including the Veterans Administration.
There is another reason why this film and it's history drew me in. During WWII both of my parents were in the U. S. Navy, which is where they met. My mother had graduated high school, and then secretarial school, before enlisting as a Wave. I'm proud of her wanting to do what she could in the war effort.
My husband, Tom, and I live in a suburb of Philadelphia. I found it interesting to learn some of the history of our adopted home area, especially with my husband's computer connection to the University of Pennsylvania. Our church is a historic landmark in Center City, Philadelphia, which is a beautiful city with a great deal of history. I'm thoroughly enjoying it's range of architectural detail.
I feel Top Secret Rosies is an important film. It is important for us to learn how these women who worked in secret enabled our troops to use their weapons accurately. They are a shining example for women in mathematics and science, especially in computer science. Granted many went back to doing more typically female jobs after the war, but a couple of the women who were ENIAC's first programmers went on to work with it until its plug was pulled. It is about time all of these brave, gifted and talented women got the recognition they deserve.
1 Information from Wikipedia.
2 From Ruth Teitelbaum's web page.
3 The film's producers used this tag line in their advertisements.