From Ballistics to Programming

How some math-savvy women helped win World War II and became the first computer programmers

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Here in the U.S., our picture of World War II is pretty well captured by the recruiting posters of the era. The most iconic is for the Army and has Uncle Sam pointing at the viewer saying “I Want You.” There were ads for the other services—the Marines, the Navy, the SeaBees, the Army Air Force. There were a few for women, for the Army Nurse Core, for the Waves, which was a Navy unit for women, and for the WACs, which was an army auxiliary unit for women, but probably the most famous woman’s poster was the one that said “Gee!! I wish I were a man. I’d join the Navy.”

Most women who contributed to the war effort were represented by another famous poster. This one had a woman standing sideways to the viewer, wearing a red-and-white kerchief and a blue shirt. Her arm is raised and flexed. Her other hand is pulling back on her short sleeve, the better to show off her impressive bicep muscles. The woman is anonymous in the poster but she had a universally known name—Rosie the Riveter—and she stands for all the women who took jobs normally had by the men who went overseas to fight.

But there were no recruiting posters for one group of women whose work was absolutely essential to the war effort. Instead, they were recruited mainly by letters sent to colleges by the War Department. These were women being recruited not for their impressive biceps but for their prowess in math and engineering.

Their work was classified at the time, and that probably contributed to the fact that it has been almost entirely overlooked for more than 60 years now. Another reason, though, is that whatever light was shone on this corner of the war effort depicted these women as clerks, though in fact by the mid-1940s they had become the world’s first computer programmers.

Their story is told for the first time in a documentary film, Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of World War II. It aired on public television last year and is now traveling around the country. This Friday it will be at Rowan University, in Glassboro, N.J.

Steven Cherry’s guest is LeAnn Erickson. She’s an associate professor of film and video production at Temple University and an independent filmmaker. She produced and directed Top Secret Rosies, which was written by Cynthia Baughman. Erickson received a small grant from the IEEE toward the making of Top Secret Rosies.

This interview was recorded 26 April 2011.
Audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli
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