"Top Secret Rosies": How female computers helped win WWII
Back before Microsoft, IBM, and Apple, the word "computer" referred to a person who computes. During World War II, the military relied on these "human computers" to calculate ballistics projections. In this time of national crisis, when women took on roles outside the home to help the war effort, the military called on young women with exceptional math skills to do this top secret work. Many of these young women were Jewish.
Top Secret Rosies: The Female "Computers" of WWII is a new documentary that tells the story of these women, including twin sisters Doris and Shirley Blumberg. When the war broke out, the country witnessed a 50% increase of women in the workforce and ballistics computing was one field newly open to women. The military began recruiting young women from high schools and colleges who were skilled in mathematics to work in top secret labs where they produced the ballistics tables that would be included in the weapons' manuals and sent overseas. They also did calculations for chemical weapons, like mustard gas, and programmed the first electronic computer, the ENIAC, which would be used to calculate the projections for the hydrogen bomb.
The women interviewed in the film explained the urgency they felt to produce the tables quickly so that the manuals would arrive on time with the weapons, often working double shifts. Of course, as the war dragged on, stories traveled back about massacres and some women described losing sleep over the consequences of their work. It's hard to imagine what it must feel like to know that your calculations are responsible for actual destruciton and death. I can't help but wonder what it means to lose that connection - the direct link between calculations and their aftermath - with modern, non-human ballistics computing.
But the film explores the positive side of the experience, too. For these young women, this job meant fair pay, or even high pay. It meant independence and another option besides marriage or traditional women's work. One woman described this time as "the happiest years for us," explaining that they managed to squeeze in some time for fun. With no men around, this small sisterhood of women went on picnics and "let their hair down" whenever they had a chance.
Towards the end of the war, the military's focus shifted to the ENIAC, the first electronic computer. The ENIAC was developed by two male engineers, but six women computers were tapped to become its first programmers. As it turned out, programming the machine was a great deal more complicated than they expected. It was the female programmers, not the developers, who actually made the machine work. Naturally, only the male engineers were photographed and interviewed by journalists. The work of the ENIAC's female programmers were never given credit for their contributions.
Because of the top secret nature of their work, the female computers of WWII - the code breakers, ballistics calculators, and programmers - never received recognition for their contribution to the war effort. This film (now available on Netflix!) finally brings their experience to light and gives these "top secret Rosies" the opportunity to tell their stories.
How to cite this page
Berkenwald, Leah. ""Top Secret Rosies": How female computers helped win WWII." 16 February 2011. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on November 26, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/top-secret-rosies>.