Film Unveils Secret Work of Female 'Computers'

Meet the women who did the math behind World War II

7 April 2011

In 1942, a secret U.S. military program began recruiting women to work as "human computers," as they were referred to at the time, calculating trajectories of artillery shells for soldiers fighting in World War II. In the years that followed, those women helped develop one of the world's first electronic computers: the ENIAC. Yet to this day, few people know their story.

That's changing, though, thanks to help from the IEEE Foundation and the IEEE History Center. Independent filmmaker LeAnn Erickson is telling the women's tale in her documentary "Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of World War II," produced with the help of a US $10 000 IEEE Foundation grant. The term "Rosies" comes from the Rosie the Riveter character the U.S. government featured in advertisements recruiting female workers for jobs in the defense industry during the war.

The film covers the history of the Rosies in the secret ballistics program through interviews with a group of women who worked at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.

Erickson, currently on a tour to show the documentary at universities and elsewhere across the United States, received the IEEE Foundation grant in 2007. She worked on the film with help from the IEEE History Center's staff and its historical archives. She also obtained a grant from the American Association of University Women to tour the film before it is aired by at least a dozen affiliate stations of the Public Broadcasting System. (Check your local station for details.) One of the first screenings was in November at the IEEE History Center, in New Brunswick, N.J.

Once recruited for the secret program, the women took a short but intensive math course at the University of Pennsylvania to master the ballistics equations. Then they went to work, which often meant toiling away on double or even triple shifts. Their calculations were published in booklets that were sent off to the artillery divisions.

The women used desktop calculators as well as a differential analyzer—a huge machine that was able to speed up the calculations. The analyzer wasn't reliable enough on its own, though, so the women often did the calculations by hand to check the machine's work. Around 1946, some of the women were hired to help program the ENIAC, which was being developed at the University of Pennsylvania. That none of their work in that area was publicly acknowledged for decades inspired Erickson to make the documentary.

Erickson is an associate professor of film and media arts at Temple University, also in Philadelphia. Her works have appeared on public television and in galleries, and they have won her international recognition at film festivals.

To buy a DVD of the documentary, or to learn when the film is airing near you, visit Erickson's Web site.

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