The Computer Wore Heels: Check out "Top Secret Rosies"

Posted by mmcmullan on 12/02/2013

While attending the Society of Women in Engineering conference in Baltimore this fall I caught a screening of “Top Secret Rosies,” a documentary that tells the story of a group of young, female mathematicians who helped the U.S. win World War II.

How did they do so? As part of a classified U.S. Army project, 100 women were recruited to perfect precision aerial bombing for U.S. soldiers. Armed with an understanding of complicated mathematics, they were able to create ballistics tables for every weapon in the military arsenal. The complex differential equations they used calculated velocity and distance to determine individual shell trajectories, and the results were compiled into manuals and shipped to soldiers in the field. Their work demonstrated the importance of STEM skills, long before science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education had its own acronym.  

But that’s not even the whole story. An elite group of these women went on to program mathematical equations into two mechanical calculators: the Differential Analyzer and the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), the world’s first computer. These machines were designed to perform the same calculations the women were doing by hand, only quicker. They taught themselves how to program the ENIAC by studying block diagrams of the machine and through simple trial and error. That means that, essentially, the world’s first computer programmers were young female mathematicians immersed in the war effort.  Filmmaker LeAnn Erikson said it thusly: “60 years ago six young women helped make computer technology a working reality and a 26 year-old woman wrote the first computer manual.”

While there are reports and accounts of every facet to World War II, the work of the Top Secret Rosies had never before been studied or documented. Erikson’s documentary shows who received the credit for the work these women did and how the real yeomen weren’t given any recognition. I watched this documentary with close to 100 women at the conference, many of whom are engineers. As the lights came back on and the credits rolled, I saw many visibly moved to tears by this newfound history.  

Let’s celebrate this important hidden history and the importance STEM skills! Send Erikson a note to schedule a screening in your community. 

Post written by AAM Field Coordinator Rachel Bennett Steury.

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