The most common image of the contribution of women to the national effort of World War II is that of Rosie the Riveter, a woman with a muscular arm and a sinewy disposition. However, there were intellectual contributions from women that were just as important. In particular, some women worked in top-secret areas, which made it difficult for their actions to be publicized. One of the most significant areas of contribution was in mathematics; large numbers of women trained in mathematics were recruited to do highly classified work in computing gunnery tables. The women did what we now would call number crunching and were largely unheralded, but their work was perhaps even more groundbreaking than those that used their muscles and were immortalized as Rosies, for it demonstrated that women were the intellectual equals of men, capable of being logical and precise.
When the war ended, a small group of those women went on to be the first programmers of the original ENIAC computer as well as of the next generation of computers, also developed by Eckert and Mauchly. Unfortunately, once they did their initial work, they were ignored, not even receiving invitations to attend the party celebrating the initial success of the machine. Their story is told in great detail in this video, which consists of images, newsreel video, narration and interviews with the women that did the job. The women clearly loved their work, deriving satisfaction from having made a significant contribution to the war effort as well as helping make technical breakthroughs.
This story would be of enormous value in courses in women’s studies, the history of computing and technology, the history of World War II, and the history of mathematics. It is hard to overstate the significance of the contribution of these women to the Allied victory in World War II, a fact that few people are aware of. Fortunately, the video was made in the nick of time as two of the women interviewed have died since it was made.
Charles Ashbacher splits his time between consulting with industry in projects involving math and computers, teaching college classes and co-editing The Journal of Recreational Mathematics. In his spare time, he reads about these things and helps his daughter in her lawn care business.