Female “Computers” – Women Power in World War II

Top-Secret Rosies


Would you believe even back during World War II, computers exist?


They were WWII’s top-secret. After 70 years, their story has emerged – Top-Secret Rosies.

History, especially war history, is dominated by the male voice. After all, soldiers are mainly composed of the male population. Almost all heroes of war then and now are comprised of men.

However, WWII’s Top-Secret Rosies put a ring of truth in the old adage “In every successful man stands a woman”. These World War II computers were indeed humans – women mathematicians whose responsibility was very vital for the success of every bomb and missile disposed during the war.

The Discovery

 “I discovered this story purely by accident,” maker of the story/documentary about WWII’s women computers LeAnn Erickson said.

A 2010-2011 American Association of University Women (AAUW) grantee, LeAnn was working on another project in 2003, block busting in Philapelphia in the 1950s and 60s, perusing through photos she would use for her documentary at the home of twins Doris Blumberg Polsky and Shirley Blumberg Melvin when she heard them talking.

“Now, was this taken after we moved to Mt Airy?” Polsky asked.

“No, that was taken when we were at UPenn for the Army.”

Her curiousity got the best out of her so she asked the ladies what they were talking about.

 “Oh, during the war we worked as mathematicians for the Army. We were recruited right out of high school,” Melvin answered her. There, Erickson got her shocking discovery.

She promised to come back for their story but the twins just laughed it off seemingly unbelieving that she was really genuinely interested in their Army stint during WWII. But come back she did! Seven years from that rather short but revealing conversation with the ladies, LeAnn produced the film Top-Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII which was released in 2010.

Their Story

When America officially entered WWII, the Army had issued a nationwide call for female mathematicians. AAUW was even tapped to help with the recruitment. The term computer then was not the modern device we are so used of now; it was a word to describe a person who does computations – exactly what the women mathematicians were in for.

“AAUW helped spread the word about this great opportunity open to college women. I was proud to be able to use the letter specifically addressed to AAUW in the documentary,” said LeAnn.

A group were drafted, most were fresh out of high school and college but had one love – passion for numbers, taken into the University of Pennsylvania, put into dorms and apartments and underwent training introduction about the world of ballistics calculation.

They grew close during their times together, they stayed in the university from 1942 to 1946, played bridge, enjoyed dancing within the university area and they were paid quite well for their job.

However, their calculations were disseminated throughout the US troops in the different theater operations during WWII. Their precise calculations, so particular to the point that they calculated whether enemies were lying down in trenches or standing up, were used in war.

LeAnn probed deeper into the stories of these women. Aside from being women in a dominantly men’s world, they also struggled with the same issue that riddled fighting men of United States – race (remember the Tuskegee Airmen).

“I knew that the World War II era was a very different one for women and people of color, but I was still surprised at various stories the women shared,” she stated. sharing a story that came from Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, who worked with Alyce Hall, the only African American in their unit. “Marlyn was organizing a going-away dinner, but Alyce pulled her aside to say she wouldn’t be able to come since the restaurant they had chosen wouldn’t serve her. Shocked at this news, Marlyn said she would find one that would.”

Moving On

After the war, the women hired to be the Army’s “calculators/computers”, went on with their lives getting married and establishing families of their own.

Nevertheless, a number of their colleagues went forward as to program the ENIAC, the first model of the general-purpose computers.

Jean Jennings Bartik was one of them.

After the war ended in 1945, Jean was hired to to work on the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer which was created by Penn scientists  John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert Jr. The said 30-ton machine was fitted with 18,000 vacuum tubes and was able to recognize numbers, do basic calculations like addition, subtraction, multiplication and division as well as perform other primary functions.

Men may have built the machine but Jean revealed it was her and fellow female associates who debugged the device’s every vacuum tube and figured out how to make it work. They were the ones who demonstrated to the military how the device worked – the programmers set the motion in process and showed how it would come up with the answer to specific mathematical problems. They taught the bulky machine do math, a feat that would have taken hours to complete when done by hand. At the end, they handed out its punch cards as souvenirs.

But at the celebratory dinner for the ENIAC’s success, none of the women programmers and the mathematicians who worked alongside them were invited. Sure, they got certificates of commendations from the military thanking them for their work but the outside world believed them to be only models placed there to show the massive ENIAC off.

“We thought that was terrible,” said Bartik, who is now 86. “It was not a secret. The only problem was nobody was interested. They didn’t know anything about it.”

Heroism through Feminine Hands

“Heroic behavior happens all around us all the time. Regular people can — and do — do amazing things every day, things that may not seem important at the time but have a ripple effect,” LeAnn mused about her documentary of WWII’s female computers.

Currently, the world is getting the feel on the story she revealed.

Top-Secret Rosieshas had extensive reach in educational circles — it is being used in junior high, high school, and college classrooms, and is held in over 500 libraries across the world,” says Erickson.

Aside from that, as she is targeting to empower adolescents and make an impact int heir young minds, she adapted the story into an iBook application fitted with a catchy title The Computer Wore Heels. he also created a study guide for educators to use when they do show her documentary to their classes.

At Temple University where she teaches film, she gives this encouragement to her students:

“Pay attention to your surroundings and to opportunities that cross your paths, however unremarkable they may seem. After all, from my Top-Secret Rosies experience, I learned there are stories everywhere, waiting to be told.”

-Article based from Fem 2.0 and CNN features

Heziel Pitogo

Heziel Pitogo is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE