Before it came to mean laptops, PCs, or even room-sized machines, "computer" was what you called a person who did mathematical calculations for a living. That job was vitally important during World War II. And, like many vital jobs on the homefront, it was turned over to women, so that men could be sent into battle. After Pearl Harbor, the military recruited women to be computers, calculating things like ballistics trajectories in top-secret enclaves at the University of Pennsylvania and the Monroe Army Base in California.
At the time, there weren't a lot of women with college-level mathematics degrees, and so the calculators included women working on accounting degrees, and even talented high-schoolers. Some of the women chosen to be human computers went on to become the first programmers of the machine-computer ENIAC.
Jean Jennings Bartik was one of the women computers. In 1945, she was a recent graduate of Northwest Missouri State Teachers College, the school's one math major. She lived on her parents' farm, refusing the teaching jobs her father suggested, avoiding talk of marrying a farmer and having babies. Bartik was waiting on a job with the military. When a telegram arrived asking her to come right away, she took a late-night train and began new career in Philadelphia.
The war ended in 1945, but within a couple months of arriving in Philadelphia, Bartik was hired to work on a related project -- an electronic computer that could do calculations faster than any man or woman. The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, created by Penn scientists John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert Jr., weighed more than 30 tons and contained about 18,000 vacuum tubes. It recognized numbers, added, subtracted, multiplied, divided and a few other basic functions.
Men had built the machine, but Bartik and her colleagues debugged every vacuum tube and learned how to make it work, she said. Early on, they demonstrated to the military brass how the computer worked, with the programmers setting the process into motion and showing how it produced an answer. They handed out its punch cards as souvenirs. They'd taught the massive machine do math that would've taken hours by hand. But none of the women programmers was invited to the celebratory dinner that followed. Later, the heard they were thought of as models, placed there to show off the machine.
The CNN story this excerpt comes from feels like it's missing some key details. But there's also a documentary on the women—called Top-Secret Rosies. I've only seen the preview video that's embedded above, but it sounds fascinating—and more than a little heartbreaking.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.