Philadelphia Story: Belated Recognition for Pioneering “Computers”

May 17, 2011

Documentary Review
Katharine Ott

Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII. High-definition video documentary, produced and directed by LeAnn Erickson,, 2010, runtime 56 minutes, $24.99 (home video version) and $44.95 (educational version).

Women's roles in the United States workforce changed drastically during World War II. Rosie the Riveter became a cultural symbol representing the American women who worked in factories. Not all Rosies, however, were blue collar workers. Women mathematicians, recruited by the U.S. Army, also helped in the war effort. Their work was classified and has remained obscure for more than sixty years. This fascinating piece of women's history, and mathematics and computer science history, is the subject of a recent documentary, Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII, directed and produced by LeAnn Erickson of Temple University.

In the early 1940s the term "computer" referred to a profession, not an electronic machine. Human computers were in demand during WWII to compute ballistics tables that would improve the accuracy and effectiveness of Allies' weapons. It was to meet this demand that women mathematicians were recruited by the Army from colleges and universities (and in some cases high schools) across the country.

The women, roughly 80 in all, formed a classified entity known as the Philadelphia Computing Section, which was located at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. Equipped with desktop calculators and a Differential Analyzer---a large mechanical computing machine that was a predecessor of the world's first electronic computer---they solved differential equations that modeled the trajectories of weapon projectiles. Their results were compiled into tables that were sent directly to battlefields in Europe.

Top Secret Rosies introduces four of the women of the Philadelphia Computing Section: Doris Blumberg Polsky and Shirley Blumberg Melvin (twin sisters), Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, and Jean Jennings Bartik. Through their personal stories, the film explores the women's mathematical backgrounds, their expectations and aspirations regarding the computing work, and their day-to-day lives during the war. They recall the excitement of living in Philadelphia as single women making a good wage ($2000 a year was considered a "fantastic salary" for a woman at that time), and the moral dilemmas stemming from their work that they faced during and after the war.

The latter half of the documentary tells the story of the world's first general-purpose electronic computer, the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), highlighting the crucial, yet neglected, role of women programmers at the dawn of the computer age. Jean Bartik was one of six women from the Philadelphia Computing Section selected to become the first programmers of the ENIAC; Bartik died in March (see below). These women learned how to program the machine from diagrams and had to rely on their own computing skill to test and debug it. In 1946, Jean and another female programmer installed the first program, written by scientists from Los Alamos National Lab, on the ENIAC. An audience was invited to view a demonstration of this program running on the ENIAC, and the publicity event was a fantastic success. Poignantly, the female computers were not invited to the celebration dinner that followed the successful demonstration. The ENIAC was designed by J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly, SIAM's fourth president (1955–56), at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering.

Filmmaker LeAnn Erickson hopes that girls, and women, will find role models in the characters of this story. "What for me is striking is that these women weren't necessarily ‘born to do this,'" she says. "They had the interest and the skill, and they did what they needed to do [to help the war effort]." She hopes that girls will take away the message that they, too, can do mathematics and computer science.

Erickson, an associate professor of film and media studies at Temple University, uncovered the story of the Philadelphia Computing Section by chance in 2001 while researching another documentary, Neighbor Ladies, about integration in Philadelphia in the 1950s and 1960s. Two of that film's subjects, Doris Polsky and Shirley Melvin, casually mentioned the job that they had held during the war. Erickson was very surprised to learn what kind of job the twins were referring to. "World War II is the second best documented war in our history, but stories are missing," she says. "It did not surprise me that this missing story had to do with women."

Erickson was, in her own words, "immediately hooked by this story because of its ‘lost moment in history' aspect." In addition, she recognized that the project could also be used educationally and to help promote mathematics and computer science to school-aged girls. Although she has no special background in math or computer science, Erickson was aware that many girls lose interest in mathematics in middle school. This awareness has compelled her to explore the educational uses of the film.

"I am very sensitive to the fact that we want to keep girls interested in math in the 4th, 5th, and 6th grades. I don't feel that the documentary is perfect for that age, so I want to develop books or other activities to help keep girls interested," Erickson explains. She is currently developing educational materials to accompany the film, including presentations about the history of human computing and a lesson on building an abacus, that will be available on the film's website by summer.

Top Secret Rosies
provides a glimpse into the history of women mathematicians during WWII and the history of women in computer programming. Hearing this story from the perspectives of Doris, Shirley, Marlyn, and Jean lends a strong emotional component to the film, which is unusual for a documentary about math history. The film has been shown at a wide array of venues, including the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, The Roosevelt House at Hunter College, and the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications at the University of Minnesota.

Katharine Ott, a former AAAS mass media fellow (sponsored by SIAM in 2006), is an NSF postdoctoral fellow at the University of Kentucky.


Jean Jennings Bartik, 1924–2011

Jean Jennings Bartik, the last of the original ENIAC programmers, died on March 23, 2011, in New York. Born in 1924 in Missouri, Bartik attended Northwest Missouri State Teachers College (now Northwest Missouri State University), where she majored in mathematics. On graduating in 1945, she went to Philadelphia to work as a human computer with the Philadelphia Computing Section; later, she was one of the six women programmers hired to debug the ENIAC. Bartik continued to work on Eckert/Mauchly-designed computers including BINAC and UNIVAC, and later entered the field of high-technology information publishing (where she worked with SIAM founder I.E. Block).

Bartik and her fellow ENIAC programmers did not receive much recognition for their work in the post-World War II years. In 1997, however, all six female programmers of the ENIAC were inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame, and in 2008 Bartik was named a fellow of the Computer History Museum. In addition, Northwest Missouri State University named its museum on computing the Jean Jennings Bartik Computing Museum and in 2002 awarded her an honorary doctorate.

Recently, her story was featured in the documentary Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of World War II. At the time of her death, Bartik had completed an autobiography that is tentatively scheduled for publication later this year.---KO

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