Many of us are familiar with the female blue-collar workers that took jobs in factories during World War II. It turns out, however, that women were also employed as mathematicians and computers (that’s “compute-ers”). In this photo, Jean Jennings Bartik and Frances Bilas Spence get ready to present an early computer to military officials in 1946:
Women operating a “differential analyzer,” often checking the machine’s work by doing the math by hand:
Jean Jennings Bartik in 1946 with an early computer and Arthur Burks:
Their work was top-secret and so they weren’t part of the “Rosie the Riveter”-style propaganda at the time. Post-World War II disinterest in women’s accomplishments allowed their stories to remain untold.
A new documentary, forwarded to us by Jordan G. and Dmitriy T.M., reveals these high-tech Rosies:
Via BoingBoing, photos from CNN.
See also our post on the feminist mythology surrounding the iconic “Rosie the Riveter” image (hint: it was about class, not gender). And you can buy Jean Jennings Bartik book, Pioneer Programmer, here.Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Marianne — February 16, 2011
As a mathematician, I'd like to point out that the calculations carried out by hand by these ladies are really huge and complex. I read about these women in my university's newsletter, and they all had, what would now be, at least a masters degree.
People now a days find it funny to check the computer's work, but it's often a smart move to do it from time to time, due to roundoff errors, truncation errors and such. Especially when working with differentials and approximations to complex functions.
So girls, when guys says "girls can't do maths/computers/science in general", tell them to shut up. These womens were the first computers, and the math carried out is really complex. I bet the guys telling you "girls can't do math" can't do anything near what these women do.
It is taught at my local University, but we generally don't do it by hand any more, and especially not with more complex functions than easy fourier-series and such. Wich is WAY below what these women did.
Anonymous — February 16, 2011
Very interesting article, though I'm a bit confused about when the descriptions refer to by 'computers'
Leigh — February 16, 2011
My husband posted this story to Drupalchix :) -- I have to say it was such a (pleasant) surprise to a decent article on CNN.
Pswingset — February 16, 2011
Anyone interested in the topic should definitely read about Grace Hopper!
HP — February 16, 2011
I can't find it now, but I once saw a picture of the U.S. Army's "Computer Room" (seriously, that's what the sign said on the door) from the First World War. Hundreds of young women (and, IIRC, one man) lined up at adding machines, with uniformed boys to pass the output of one calculation to the input of the next.
When the first electronic computers came online in the late 40s, all the computer operators were women, because they had the most practical experience with processing data and crunching numbers. It wasn't until the 1960s (when my Dad got involved) that working with computers was regendered as "men's work."
Ragnvaeig — February 16, 2011
While they were definitely blue-collar workers, the "Calutron girls" of the Manhattan Project outproduced their more highly-educated male coworkers. They're another interesting part of the spectrum of women workers in the WWII war effort.
While the quickest internet source I've found for this story is in the Wikipedia entry on the Calutron, it cites The Road to Trinity by Ken Nichols.
Elena — February 17, 2011
For the sake of completeness, an earlier (and scientifically outstanding) example of women computers was the charmingly nicknamed Pickering's Harem, a group of initially unskilled women hired to visually process astronomy photographic plates. The women went on to develop a classification of stars by spectral characteristics and discover the period-luminosity relation of Cepheid variable stars, besides discovering an astounding number of astronomical objects.
links for 2011-02-17 « Embololalia — February 17, 2011
[...] High-Tech Rosies in World War II » Sociological Images Their work was top-secret and so they weren’t part of the “Rosie the Riveter”-style propaganda at the time. Post-World War II disinterest in women’s accomplishments allowed their stories to remain untold. (tags: geek.feminism ww2 women mathematics) [...]
shirley stellhorn — February 19, 2012
We have a History Club at our condo in St James - we meet once a month. Our leader (a retired history teacher) told us about the "ROSIES OF WW II). We were all inspired by their work. Too bad they hav'nt gotten more recognition. Let's hope future women's contributions do not get overlooked.
Harry — July 25, 2019
Hello, While they were definitely blue-collar workers, the "Calutron Girls" of the Manhattan Project outproduced their more highly-educated male coworkers. I think another interesting part of the spectrum of women workers in the WWII war effort.
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