Women, the Original Computers

By Edward Cone  |  Posted Thursday, February 10, 2011 21:02 PM

by Tim Moran

Once upon a time, a "computer" was a person, not a thing.

In most cases, this person was female, and therein lays the tale of the women who, in 1942, were part of a secret U.S. military program at the University of Pennsylvania, where they worked as "computers" calculating weapons trajectories for soldiers fighting in World War II.

"[T]heir work was little known, unacknowledged or left out of official histories of the war and the development of computers," says one recent report. Of course, what they did was secret, never intended to be known about outside the military.

Many women worked as computers, at a time when women were enlisted to handle jobs usually done by men -- men who were at that point out fighting or in some way working on the War effort. A cohort of these woman was turned up by LeAnn Erickson, an associate professor at Temple University, whose research led to a video documentary, "Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of World War II."

After the war ended in 1945, some of these women were hired to work on that new technology marvel, ENIAC -- the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer. ENIAC was a monstrosity, weighing in the neighborhood of 30 tons and containing about 1800 vacuum tubes. By today's computing standards, it did very little: add, subtract, multiply, divide, and such. Though the men who created it -- John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, Jr. -- received all the kudos, it was the nascent "programming" and vacuum-tube debugging by women computers that actually made ENIAC work. But other than a shared certificate of commendation from the military, "the programmers and their hand-calculating counterparts got no recognition."

The history of the computer is widely assumed to have been a stag affair. The emergence of the story of these women and what they did both during the war and after is evidence that even recent history can be misunderstood.