Women today owe debts of gratitude to so many who came before us. Women such as Boudica and Joan of Arc who proved that women can be just as canny in war as men are. Women like the suffragists who protested, petitioned and endured unspeakable cruelty to get us the right to vote. The women who dressed as men to serve in the American Civil War and the women who left their homes behind to become nurses to the wounded in that war and the ones that have followed.
World War II was no exception. Women who had been housewives and mothers, were called to replace the men who enlisted or were drafted into the war, they went to work in factories across the country. They built ships, tanks, airplanes and worked in clothing factories making uniforms. These women became known collectively as Rosie the Riveter. And that “can do” attitude permeated into the rest of the country.
Before the war began, women who went to college actually out numbered their male counterparts. However, when they graduated college, they could look forward to low paying jobs as teachers or secretaries. At this time, women were expected to get married, have a family and settle into domestic life. Not all women wanted that life, some wanted more and reached for the stars.
Jean Jennings was one such woman. She grew up very poor on a farm in Missouri, her father was a teacher and a farmer, her mother stayed home and cared for the children. They grew their own food and only bought staples (flour, shortening, salt, etc.) from the town store, everything else they made. Jean, wanted to get as far away from farm life as possible. Her role model was her aunt Gretchen who didn’t marry until she was 40, didn’t have children and wore makeup. Jean borrowed $400 (a great sum in 1940’s America) from her aunt to attend college.
Jean graduated college in January 1945. Her calculus teacher showed her a notice from the War Department looking for females who excelled in mathematics. Jean applied, but did not hear from the War Department for a while, so she went home to Missouri where her father kept telling her of schools that needed math teachers. Jean was determined to wait. It paid off, she got a telegram saying “report immediately”, she was on the next train to Philadelphia.
Shirley and Doris Blumberg were twin sisters from Grays Ferry Philadelphia. They grew up in a predominantly Irish and Italian Catholic neighborhood. Their father was a respected real estate agent and both parents were active in the Jewish community. There was a synagogue five blocks away were the family attended services. Neither sister recalls enduring any kind of discrimination in their little corner of the world. The twins attended Girls High School in Philadelphia, a college preparatory school where the girls excelled in mathematics and joined the math club.
By the time the girls were ready to graduate in May of 1942, America had entered the war. High schools and colleges all over the country were getting letters from the War Department asking for young women who had skills in mathematics, Shirley and Doris fit that bill. Their principal, Dr. Olive Ely Hart, recommended the girls go and apply for the jobs.
Marlyn Westcoff was the daughter of a travelling salesman and a stay at home mom. Her father travelled all over the East coast of America and during the summer Marlyn would accompany him. In her family, going to college was expected. She graduated high school in 1938 and went to Temple University, where she graduated in 1942. She knew she didn’t want to be a teacher, so she took extra course in business: shorthand, typing and adding machine. She also excelled at mathematics and applied to work for the War Department.
Brief History of Human Computing
Human computing can be traced as far back as the 17th century. The earliest forms of human computing where astronomy, architecture and engineering. The term “computer”, until the end of the 19th century, meant a person who spent their life computing. In essence a person who spent their life completing complex mathematical problems for astronomical tables, factoring trajectories of cannon balls, bullets and eventually missiles.
Human Computing and World War II
When the war broke out, the young men of America lined up to enlist in the military. Those who didn’t, were soon drafted. With the young man being sent off to war, the call went out to any high school and college/university with a mathematics department that the military needed young women who showed an aptitude for mathematics.
During World War I the U.S. Army had developed a ballistics training and testing ground in Aberdeen, Maryland. Ballistics is the science behind how a projectile (a bullet, missile, cannon ball, any kind of projectile) moves in flight and where it lands. It also concerns the design and quickness of the projectile.
When America entered the world, the men at Aberdeen were overwhelmed by the amount of calculations needed to create ballistics charts for the men on the front line and they needed help fast.
The military contracted with a lab in Philadelphia in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania at the Moore School of Engineering. They created a classified satellite lab that became the Philadelphia Computing Section. They had a Bush Differential Analyzer, one of only six in the world, to use for calculations. It was big, bulky and had to have gears recalibrated when the equation was wrong. Each equation fed into the machine was verified by hand by a female computer.
Young women came from all over the country to work at the Moore school and at military bases around the country. The girls at Moore became very close, they worked two shifts on three floors in the building. They often worked double shifts to complete their work. They understood that the calculations they completed had a direct effect on the men on the front lines.
Each shell trajectory took thousands of individual calculations, each completed by hand and verified with the Bush Analyzer. The analyzer could complete a calculation in fifteen minutes, however the same one would take Jean and Marlyn forty hours to complete. The importance of double-checking calculations cannot be stressed, peoples lives literally depended on those calculations. The calculations performed by these women created the trajectory charts that were put into manuals and sent to the men on the front line.
Mid way through the war, Herman Goldstine, John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert pitched to the military a new electronic machine that could do the calculations in place of the women. The Army agreed to fund it and it would become known as the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer).
Work on it would be slow, by D-Day (June 6, 1944) it was still not completed. The women of the Moore school were feeling the pressure of the calculations they needed to complete for Aberdeen Ballistics. January 15, 1945 the call goes out that more computers are needed.
The women didn’t know if the work they were doing was going to the European front or the Asian Theater of the war. When the ENIAC is completed at the end of the summer of 1945. Six computers would be assigned to work it: Betty Jean Jennings, Marlyn Wescoff, Kay McNulty, Betty Snyder, Ruth Lichterman and Fran Bilas. However, they are not allowed to even see the machine until their security clearances are up graded, so they begin to study block diagrams of the machine. They figure out how to create a master program for it and could trouble shoot it down to a bad vacuum tube, all without even seeing the machine.
August 15, 1945 Japan Announces Surrender
When the war ended and the soldiers began to return home, women were pushed back into their pre-war roles. Women who had been welders, riveters, machinist and so much more, now had to go back to cleaning houses and being housewives. One of the biggest impacts on women during the war, was psychological. Women who had been told that they could not do what a man could do, now knew that to be wrong. They could weld, they could rivet, they could complete mathematical problems just as good and often better than the men.
The women across the country who worked as code breakers and human computers had more options after the war. However, they did not get recognition for the work they had done for over fifty years, yet they kept the secrets of their top-secret work for generations.
When the ENIAC was unveiled to the press, photos were taken of the machine and those who programmed it. Many of the photos showed women at the machine, however when the photos were published, the women had been cropped out. But, that didn’t slow these women down!
Marlyn worked on the ENIAC unit it was moved to Aberdeen in 1946. She then went to work and helped build her husbands dental practice while raising two children. She counted one of her proudest moments when her grandson received an A on a paper he wrote about his grandmothers work during the war. Marlyn died in 2008.
Shirley married a photographer and worked in his studio until the Franklin Institute requested her to come work for them as a mathematician on an aircraft project. When she finished she returned to Philadelphia to raise her three daughters.
Doris married in 1947 and followed her husband, helping him establish his teaching career. She had five children and eventually returned to Philadelphia where she and Shirley formed Twin Realty in 1965, the first female owned real estate company in Philadelphia.
The sisters were active in their community and received many awards for their service. When Shirley died in 2009, Doris continued on as matriarch of their two families, until her death in 2015.
Jean followed ENIAC to Aberdeen and worked there until 1948 when John Mauchly hired her to program the UNIVAC and BINAC computers for the newly formed Eckert Mauchly Computer Corporation. She was a pioneer in computer science, lived in New Jersey, traveled frequently giving lectures on her work in computers and said her greatest achievements were her children, grandchildren and great grandson. She died in 2011.
In 1997 all the ENIAC programmers were inducted into the Women in Technology Hall of Fame. The work that they did during those war years and after impacted the lives of thousands of men, women and children. They laid the groundwork for what would become the modern military industrial complex that has produced numerous advances in technology and weaponry by government funding, university brain power and industrial capacity working together.
The women who worked for NASA as computers, followed in the steps of these women and made even greater strides for women for they sent John Glen into space and brought him home again.
I’ve only mentioned a few of the women who worked on these projects. There were over 70 women alone working at Moore School. Thousands more worked around the country as code breakers, riveters, welders, machinist, calculating trajectories, working for all branches of the U.S. military and so many more around the world.
Future blogs will be introducing some of these amazing women to you. Women resistance fighters, women who survived horrendous medical experimentation to tell their stories, women who became spies and so many more.
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