By Marivir R. Montebon
New York City — The first computers were not machines, they were women. And they were important as the soldiers who won World War II for America to become the world’s dominant world power. However, recognizing women’s contributions took a very long time.
It took 67 years for women mathematicians to be recognized through a historical documentary presented by Leann Erickson, a professor of Film and Media Arts at the Temple University in Philadelphia. Having been a film maker for more than 20 years, she is a recipient of regional and national production grants for her work from such funding sources as the National Endowment for the Arts, the Jerome Foundation and the Leeway Foundation.
Titled Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII (2010), Erickson’s documentary centered on these young female “computers” who took a short and intense course on ballistics calculations before they began work in 1942. So precise, they could calculate whether the soldiers were standing or laying on the trenches.
The documentary was presented at the auspices of the United Nations New York Headquarters in time for Women’s Month celebration in 2011.
Way back in the 1940s, a computer was not a machine, but a job position held by someone who was excellent in math and science could readily fill in. At that time, young women did the work.
Erickson featured twins Shirley and Doris Blumberg, Marlyn Wescoff Weltzer, and Jean Jennings Bartik, who were then high school students who excelled in mathematics, for her documentary which was finished in 2010. They were among the recruits of the government’s frantic effort to hire mathematicians for the war.
In the documentary, Bartik said all the ballistics programmers at that time were women who worked with the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), created by Penn scientists John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert Jr. She said that they demonstrated to the military brass how the computer worked, with the programmers setting the process into motion and showing how it produced as answer, debugging every vacuum tube.
Bartik, who passed on in 2011, said computers were useless without programmers in the documentary. However none of them was invited to the recognition dinner. They were also just thought of as models who showed off the machine. In their many years of work, all the programmers had were a shared certificate of commendation from the military.
It was only in Bartik’s twilight years that she was awarded merits of recognition for her work as a human computer. She was inducted into the Women in Technology Hall of Fame in 1999 and became a Fellow Award honoree at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California in 2008, three years before she died.
Erickson said, “We just don’t pay attention to what women do. Despite the fact that women helped the war effort, we don’t know.”
Erickson has launched a tour of her historical documentary and is pleased by the overwhelming response of the schools and universities in the country.
Women’s groups and leaders in the US have continuously sustained their work at educating the younger generation and innovating ways to empower women through Math and Science. These relentlesss efforts always make the faceless, voiceless contribution of WWII computer Rosie Jean Bartik recognized. (Photos by Leann Erikson)