Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of World War II is a documentary produced, directed, and narrated by LeAnn Erickson, a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. During World War II, hundreds, possibly thousands of young, mostly single women were employed as human “computers” in the United States and Great Britain performing lengthy mathematical calculations of ballistic trajectories for bombs and gun shells, breaking codes, and simulations of the first atomic weapons. They are mentioned very briefly, if at all, in most historical accounts of the war and military research and development during the war. Top Secret Rosies tells their story, focusing on a group of women who worked for the U.S. Army at the Moore School of Engineering of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia calculating ballistic firing tables for bombs and gun shells, several of whom became the first “programmers” of ENIAC, often described, probably incorrectly, as the first electronic computer, which was developed at the University of Pennsylvania.
Top Secret Rosies is a fascinating account of a little known episode in history. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the documentary and watched it a couple times. The documentary is not very technical, spending only a few minutes on the numerical solution of differential equations that formed the actual work performed by the women — by hand, often using only pencil and paper and the bulky Monroe and Marchant mechanical calculators of the time. It is mostly history and human interest, using newspaper headlines and film footage from the time, interspersed with interviews with the women, most in their eighties when interviewed, to recreate the feel of the war years. Although the documentary has a feminist message, it does not beat the viewer over the head with the message and can be enjoyed by those who may disagree with the message.
There are a few caveats. The documentary identifies the ENIAC as the first electronic computer. It would probably be more accurate to describe the ENIAC as one of the first electronic computers. A 1973 decision in the patent suit Honeywell v. Sperry Rand named John Vincent Atanasoff the inventor of the first automatic electronic digital computer for the Atanasoff-Berry Computer (ABC) developed by Atanasoff at Iowa State College. There is considerable documentation presented in the court case and various subsequently published books that Atanasoff designed and built an electronic computer before the ENIAC.
The documentary includes an on-camera statement by Dr. William F. Atwater, a military historian, that the war could not have been won without the calculations of ballistic trajectories performed by the women. It does not however include hard quantitative data on how much the calculations improved the accuracy of the weapons nor whether and to what degree the increased accuracy translated into success in battle and ultimately the war.
The documentary does touch upon the rather poor accuracy of the “strategic bombing” during World War II. Despite the high-tech bombing tables computed by the women and the famous Norden bombsight, the bombing was not very accurate. Dr. Atwater makes a statement that the bombers were doing good if they got within five-hundred yards of an intended target. The documentary asserts that the Allies resorted to massive carpet bombing in the vicinity of targets with unavoidable “collateral damage”.
At the time, the “strategic bombing” was portrayed to the public as highly accurate, striking military targets with great precision and sparing civilian targets, not unlike claims about “smart bombs” in both Iraq wars more recently. I remember being taught similar claims of high accuracy for the World War II “strategic bombing” in US History in 11th grade. However, there is considerable controversy over these claims and retrospective analyses have frequently claimed the bombing was very inaccurate, even worse than Dr. Atwater’s five-hundred yards.
By some accounts, German military war production actually peaked at the end of the war, so ineffective was the bombing. In a specific case, the German V2 rocket program survived almost intact by hiding the missiles and factories in highway tunnels bored through mountains. Most of the unused V2 rockets were apparently shipped to the United States for further research and development along with Werner von Braun’s so-called “Rocket Team” after the war, which seems to have survived the bombing campaign with negligible casualties.
In retrospect, one can ask to what extent the highly touted high tech aspects of the bombing campaign were wishful thinking or even deliberate propaganda to rationalize indiscriminate revenge for Pearl Harbor and other actions by the Axis powers. Of course, it is easy to be a Monday morning quarterback and we cannot rerun World War II with no or a different, more measured bombing campaign and see what might have happened.
The use of abstruse mathematics as a sort of scientific holy water and incense to sanctify otherwise mundane and, in some cases, highly questionable activities is a common phenomenon. During the recent global housing bubble, sophisticated mathematical models were used to justify loans to borrowers that would have been immediately ruled out using traditional low-tech lending criteria. There seems little doubt at this point that the traditional low-tech criteria, dating back to the aftermath of the Great Depression, were and are far more accurate than the advanced mathematics.
Top Secret Rosies touches on some bigger issues. In the United States, women continue to perform at a lower level in mathematics on average than men. According to the College Board, the mean score for women on the Math SAT test in 2009 was 499 as opposed to 534 for men (on a scale of 200 to 800 with 800 a perfect or near perfect score).
The difference between men and women is more pronounced at higher scores. In 2009, 35,411 women scored in the range 700-800 on the Math SAT out of 818,760 women taking the test. In contrast, 61,885 men scored 700-800 out of 711,368 men taking the test. Mathematics, physics, engineering, and other professions that depend on mathematical skills tend to strongly dominated by men in part because they recruit almost exclusively from top scorers on standardized tests like the SAT and GRE.
To what extent this preponderance of men in mathematics is due to environment, cultural factors, active discouragement of interest by women in mathematics, low pay and poor working conditions in academia regardless of gender, or innate characteristics is the subject of continuous controversy. Larry Summers, then the President of Harvard University, was ousted in 2006 in part due to comments implying that the difference might have a genetic component.
The title Top Secret Rosies refers to Rosie the Riveter, a popular icon of the World War II period made famous by a hit popular song, a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover, and many other sources, symbolizing many women who took factory and other traditionally male jobs during the war.
Rosie the Riveter has been embraced by feminists. The “We Can Do It!” illustration above is a then obscure World War II poster that was rediscovered and associated with the Rosie the Riveter mythology by feminists in the early 1980s. It is not actually one of the original Rosie the Riveter art works and propaganda from the war.
One final caveat. My personal belief is that the importance and career value of mathematics will grow as people learn to exploit the power of modern computers. However, pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematics, physics, or other mathematical fields is usually a bad deal, both for men and women. Most of these graduate programs produce far more Ph.D.’s than the number of permanent positions such as professorships that exist or will exist, despite frequent false claims of shortages. Thus, graduate students are sacrificing substantial income and, in many cases, experiencing poor working conditions, for little reward in the end.
Modern academia in the United States is increasingly relying on slave labor from poor nations who are locked into their graduate student or post doctoral research associate positions by visa restrictions, easy prey for self-serving and sometimes mentally disturbed (there seems to be a high incidence of psychological problems in mathematical fields) faculty, not a healthy environment for young women (or men). See Philip Greenspun’s on-line article “Women in Science” for a humorous but serious take on this sad state of affairs. Women (and men) who are interested in mathematics should pursue other avenues to acquire the necessary skills!
Top Secret Rosies is an excellent documentary that covers a topic that usually receives one or two sentences, if any mention at all, in most histories, both popular and scholarly. It is available on a DVD from Amazon and other resellers. As of January 9, 2012, it was available on Netflix. Since Netflix adds and removes content without warning, this may change.
“We Can Do It!” Westinghouse poster by J. Howard Miller is from Wikimedia and is in the public domain.
© 2012 John F. McGowan
About the Author
John F. McGowan, Ph.D. solves problems using mathematics and mathematical software, including developing video compression and speech recognition technologies. He has extensive experience developing software in C, C++, Visual Basic, Mathematica, MATLAB, and many other programming languages. He is probably best known for his AVI Overview, an Internet FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) on the Microsoft AVI (Audio Video Interleave) file format. He has worked as a contractor at NASA Ames Research Center involved in the research and development of image and video processing algorithms and technology. He has published articles on the origin and evolution of life, the exploration of Mars (anticipating the discovery of methane on Mars), and cheap access to space. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Additional Reading and Resources
A fairly friendly account of the World War II bombing which nonetheless debunks many of the extreme claims for the accuracy of the Norden bombsight and daylight bombing made before and during World War II.
Disturbing the Universe by the physicist Freeman Dyson, who was involved in the analysis of the bombing in Great Britain during the war, contains a more critical account of the effectiveness of strategic bombing during World War II.