Hidden Her-story: The Top-Secret “Rosies” of World War II
In 1942, when computers were human and women were underestimated, a group of female mathematicians helped win a war and usher in the computer age.

Session Details

Friday, January 09, 2009
10:30 a.m. - 12:00 p.m.
Millennium Hall (second floor)

Session Type: General Session

Speaker(s)

  • LeAnn Erickson, Associate Professor, Film and Media Arts, Temple University

Abstract

As you read this, somewhere in the United States a young college woman is completing a class assignment on a computer, i-chatting with a friend in another country, or perhaps blogging about the day's activities on her own website. She uses sophisticated technology every day, but the odds are she is not working toward a career in the computer field. Today less than one-third of computer engineers and scientists are women, while fewer than one in four computer programmers are female.(1) What might this co-ed think if she knew that 60 years earlier six women not much older than she helped make computer technology a working reality? Would she think differently about a future career if she knew that a 26-year-old woman wrote the first computer manual?(2)

In 1942, only months after the United States entered World War II, a secret military program was launched to recruit women to the war effort. But unlike recruiting “Rosie” to the factory, this search targeted female mathematicians who would become human "computers" for the U.S. Army. These women worked around-the-clock shifts creating ballistics tables that proved crucial to Allied victory. “Rosie” made the weapons, but the female computers made them accurate. When the first electronic computer (ENIAC) was invented to aid ballistic calculation efforts, six of these women were tapped to become its first programmers. “Top Secret ´Rosies’: The Female ´Computers’ of WWII” is a documentary project currently in postproduction that will share this untold story of the women and technology that helped win a war and usher in the modern computer age.

Impact:
The American educational community recognizes an urgent need to encourage more young people, particularly women, to study math and science in high school and college and to pursue careers in the sciences. When then Harvard President Larry Summers questioned whether gender disparities in scientific achievement were due to socialization or to innate intellectual disparities, women scientists and educators were outraged, and the controversy refocused attention on the need to provide young girls with encouragement and role models. “Top Secret Rosies” will do just that. Through national broadcast and educational distribution, students will discover how, over 60 years ago, a group of women as young as 18 used their math skills to help win Allied victory during World War II. This little-known story of female brainpower, perseverance, and sacrifice is a unique story of women who have applied their minds in surprising arenas. The hope is that it will inspire a new generation of young women to apply themselves in the areas of math, science, technology, and computers.


http://www.topsecretrosies.com


Footnotes:
1. U.S. Department of Labor statistic, http://www.dol.gov/wb/factsheets/hitech02.htm
2. Adele Goldstine, ENIAC manual, 1946

Available Resources