Women "computers" of World War II

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.

Thanks to datakid23 for tipping me off to the post about this on Slashdot!


  1. At Bletchley Park, they crammed these female operators into Quonset huts with blacked-out windows. The heat from so many tabletop electro-mechanical adding machines in such a small space forced them to work in their underwear.

    Anyway, there’s your nerd porn moment for this Wednesday. Mmm, ladies in their underwear. OOOH, VINTAGE ELECTRO-MECHANICAL COMPUTERS!!!

  2. Thanks Maggie, great story. Those women should be awarded with a medal or prize.
    What I found interesting is how those who build ENIAC didn’t knew how to make it work? Unless there was a mechanical damage that they didn’t knew how to repair, but women could.

    1. Or the designers knew the ENIAC would require a lot of manual programming and debugging, so they hired some people to do it?

  3. Later, the heard they were thought of as models, placed there to show off the machine.

    Well that’s their own fault for looking so pretty. (j/k)

    Though if I were a sexist army general, I’d have either asked “isn’t hiring models a waste of money?” or “hey, are those models coming to the celebration party?”

  4. legendary physicist Richard Feynman managed similar teams of people at adding machines during the Manhattan Project.

    He noticed backlogs that would occur when one result was waiting for information from another process, so he reorganized their workflow so those waiting could work on other equations – and created the concept of parallel processing.

  5. Ah, sexism. Vitally important women were thought of as eye candy, while the article kind of glosses over the fact that the reason there were there is because the mores of the time (and, often times, today) dictate that men are the ones to be sent to die. I hate society.

  6. On the eniacprogrammers.org site:

    “None of us girls were ever introduced…we were just programmers.”
    Kay Mauchly Antonelli, ENIAC Programmer, The Computers: The Untold Story of the Remarkable Women Who Programmed the ENIAC (Documentary Preview), 2001

    That sounds strangely familiar.

  7. My mother, who was a minor math savant, was a Bright Young Thing during the war. She turned it into a forty-plus year career working on projects like the DEW Line. Nobody treated her like a model although, at 5′-9″, she was an inch taller than the average man of the day.

  8. I have to say this or lose all of my copy-editing street cred: “Later, the heard they were thought of as models” probably ought to read “Later, THEY heard they were thought of…”.
    Okay, I feel better now.

  9. Cryptonomicon is a 1999 novel by American author Neal Stephenson. The novel follows the exploits of two groups of people in two different time periods. The first is World War II-era Allied codebreakers and tactical-deception operatives affiliated with the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. The second narrative is …

  10. It’s always nice to see light shed on the reality of the first computer programmers, how they were pretty much all women, and how their work and contributions to computing were so badly underestimated.

    My grandmother, Kathleen Mauchly Antonelli, was among the ENIAC programmers. My grandfather was John Mauchly, the co-inventor thereof.

    My uncle Bill Mauchly and I set up a website about the ENIAC, if anybody out there is interested in more and deeper nerdity about this old oddball machine (which worked in DECIMAL, of all things).

    Find it here: http://the-eniac.com

  11. This looks really interesting and is similar to the story of around 6000 women who worked at Bletchley Park during WW2. We made a short video about them: The Women of Station X http://www.bletchleypark.org.uk/content/video-example.rhtm

    I’ve been campaigning to save Bletchley Park for several years now as it is underfunded, see http://www.savingbletchleypark.org It would be great to link up in some way to the US Rosies, 300 US intelligence also worked at Bletchley Park.

    Colossus: the world’s first programmable digital computer, invented by Tommy Flowers was used at Bletchley Park as part of the codebreaking effort. The work done there was said by Eisenhower to have shortened the war by two years, potentially saving 22 million lives.

    I recently found out about Joan Clarke, a major codebreaker at Bletchley Park who worked in Hut 8 with Alan Turing and was also engaged to him at one point. I would love to know more about her.

    If anyone is interested in knowing more about Bletchley Park please do get in touch http://www.sueblack.co.uk/contact.html and I’m @Dr_Black on Twitter.

Comments are closed.