The documentary “Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of World War II” introduces us to the women computers of WWII – women who were recruited to help calculate ballistics trajectories in order to create trajectory tables that were shipped to troops around the world. Back then, a computer meant a person who did calculations as a job. During WWII, with men overseas, women saw expanding opportunities in the workplace. These female computers were recruited from the mathematics departments of colleges and asked to interview for the Pennsylvania Computing Section, a ballistics lab in the Moore School of Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania.
These trajectory problems required thousands of calculations and the solving of differential equations. A 60 second shell trajectory problem took a human around 40 hours to complete. Six women were assigned to work on a differential analyzer, which completed the same problem in 15 minutes. These women worked hard, knowing that the soldiers in the field relied upon the manuals they sent out. They worked double or triple shifts if necessary and took no vacations.
Later on, some of these women became programmers on ENIAC, the world’s first electronic computer. When ENIAC was designed, the women were invited to interview to be programmers since they had been involved in the human computing work. Two of them worked day and night to program the press demonstration of ENIAC, which was held in February 1946. However, these women did not always receive the recognition they deserved. Of the demonstration, Dr. Jennifer S. Light says, “Many of the men engineers received publicity, while the female computers and programmers did not. As far as the official publicity that was staged in February 1946 that was organized by the war department and pretty tightly controlled in terms of what journalists and other people attending saw, Betty Jean Jennings and Betty Snyder developed the demonstration trajectory program. Again, they were the ones who made the machine do the things that we all got very excited about, but their participation was never mentioned in either war department press releases or later news reports that relied on those publicity materials.”