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Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII 2010

Highly Recommended

Distributed by Distributed by PBS
Produced by Produced by LeAnn Erickson
Directed by Directed by LeAnn Erickson
DVD, color, 88 min.

Jr. High - Adult
Japan, Popular Culture, Music Trade, Singers

Date Entered: 01/07/2011

ALA Notable:
Reviewed by: Reviewed by Monique Threatt, Indiana University, Herman B Wells Library, Bloomington, IN

Narrated by filmmaker/producer LeAnn Erickson, this full-length documentary tells the fascinating and important role of female mathematicians during World War II. Secretly recruited by the war department, women skilled in advanced mathematics manipulated astronomical differential equations to calculate shell trajectories, perfect precision aerial bombing, and create ballistics tables for military weapons. After having gained experience in using a Bush Differential Analyzer to solve complex differential equations, six of these women would be chosen to become the first female programmers for ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), the first general electronic computer.

According to Wikipedia, “by 1945, more than 2.2 million women were working in the war industries, building ships, aircraft, vehicles, and weaponry. Women also worked in factories, munitions plants and provided logistic support for soldiers.*” America dubbed these factory workers, Rosie the Riveter. The ubiquitous image of the strong-armed Rosie gained popularity due in part to exposure in print and moving images. However, because Rosie the human female computer was recruited in secret, these women were not afforded the public adoration or attention as their riveting sisters. Yet, without the expertise of Rosie the female computer, the war would not have been won.

The film focuses primarily on women of the Philadelphia Computing Section (PCS) located within the University of Pennsylvania at Philadelphia, Moore School of Electrical Engineering (MSEE). The Moore School of Electrical Engineering was one of five institutions worldwide to own a gargantuan Bush Differential Analyzer, a machine designed to solve differential equations by integration using wheel-and-disc mechanisms to perform the integration. However, in the absence of a differential analyzer, these women were the human computers responsible to solve thousands of mathematical equations to calculate a single shell trajectory. To meet the military’s demand for immediate ballistic computations, women worked around the clock to calculate trajectories for air and ground arsenal. The added benefit of having the differential analyzer was that it could solve a 60 second shell trajectory in 15 minutes compared to 40 hours in manual labor. These results were then shipped immediately to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland where they were then compiled into tables, bound into manuals, and shipped to soldiers worldwide.

Another huge computer developed during WWII at the MSEE was the ENIAC. Women who had successfully displayed their skills in using the differential analyzer were now recruited to parlay their expertise skills as programmers for this new electronic computer. Although the machine had been developed by male project engineers, it was the women who were required to study locked diagrams, and run test after test of trajectory calculations. Although the ENIAC would not play a role in World War II, it would become infamous for other reasons such as solving calculations for the first hydrogen bomb, and becoming the forefather to usher in the new computer age.

There is little doubt that without the assistance of these female human computers, the war might have been lost. These women were cognizant of war casualties, and this led some to question their morals and ethics. But without their calculating expertise, the war might have had a different outcome. These women knew they had an obligation to serve their country while their men fought “over there.”

The editing is fined tuned, while the use of music is kept at a minimum. The documentary makes extensive use of archival footage, along with talking heads from various fields such as mathematicians, engineers, servicemen, university professors, and historians. This program is highly recommended for numerous reasons. It serves to document a long-overdue recognition of women as programming pioneers of the computer age, their significant and crucial role to the war effort, and a realization of better job opportunities afforded women outside of traditional occupations.

This film is sure to supplement courses in computer science, history and women’s studies. I highly recommend this title for school, public, and academic libraries.