Calculating Women

From The Wall Street Journal:

Early in 1946, the U.S. Army was ready to make a big announcement: Scientists had created the “world’s first general-purpose, programmable, all-electronic computer . . . at least a thousand times faster than any other computer on Earth,” the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC.

Its development—how it was built, troubleshot, programmed, checked again—involved years of careful work by mathematicians, physicists and engineers. And its eventual ability to perform faster calculations than anyone had ever dreamt of—“5,000 additions in a second and 500 multiplications in the same second, not to mention lightning-fast divisions and square roots”—owed a surprising debt to a cohort of young women who started the war punching numbers into mechanical calculators to figure out ballistic artillery trajectories.

Their story was all but lost. When Kathy Kleiman was a Harvard undergraduate in the mid-1980s, researching women’s role in the history of computing, she ran across a puzzling photograph—it showed enormous metal machines tethered by cables and adorned with switches and plugs, the famous ENIAC. Two of the men in the photo, its co-inventors, were named, but the women in the room weren’t. She determined to find out more. In “Proving Ground,” her history of the young women who became the ENIAC 6, Ms. Kleiman pulls together a worthwhile record of their work.

The cast of characters could have come from one of those diverse rosters beloved of war movies: Kay McNulty, the Donegal-born math major whose first language was Irish; her quiet classmate Fran Bilas, one of the smartest girls at Chestnut Hill; the lively and imaginative Betty Snyder, who foreshadowed her problem-solving ability by fact-checking lipstick-sales statistics; Marlyn Wescoff, discouraged from looking for teaching jobs because of anti-Semitism; Ruth Lichterman, who turned down a job at Jewish summer camp to take the computing job; and Jean Jennings of Missouri, who could hoe corn as well as her brothers and was so good at math that her professors thought of her when the Army job notice came around.

By summer 1942, the Army was “looking for women math majors” for specialized jobs that would previously have been men’s. In Philadelphia, they were hiring Computers—the human sort—to calculate all sorts of variables that affect trajectory, from wind direction and humidity to shell weight. Kay and Fran joined early, and the others came later, working long hours to identify and synthesize pertinent information. (For example, calculations for the North African desert take into account that the ground is softer than in France, so recoil changes, and the air is drier and less dense.)

On the first floor of the same building, at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, “Project X” got underway. The time it took to calculate trajectories was still so great it might affect military readiness. John Mauchly, Herman Goldstine and J. Presper Eckert Jr.—a physicist, a mathematician and an engineer—began to work together on a project using vacuum tubes and electricity, developing what eventually became the hardware of the 80-foot ENIAC. It was to work at “the speed of electrons, not the turtle’s pace of electromechanical switches,” and they put it all together almost as quickly.

Still needed, though, were people to give the device its instructions: programmers. The women in the ballistics project combined intelligence with diligence and imagination and were already familiar with the problems ENIAC would have to solve. So the project leaders brought the six women into Project X—partway. They didn’t have clearances even to enter the ENIAC room, so they were given plans to study, diagrams showing what went where and did what. The ENIAC 6 divided up the homework and taught each other what they figured out. If they had questions, they buttonholed their male colleagues in the hall.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

3 thoughts on “Calculating Women”

  1. When my father had to take his turns babysitting me at the age of 10 on a weekend, he would take me to his office at the flour mill and leave me to amuse myself alone amidst all the other desks and offices. I found those same mechanical calculators (or their near descendants) and had a gay old time discovering the properties of the repeating decimals of 1/prime numbers. [I felt sure that someone else must surely have already discovered this, but I had no way of finding out for sure…]


  2. I always love it when the unclassified cover story takes on a life of its own, especially when those responsible for implementing that cover story don’t know that’s what they’re doing and actually make it successful. The, umm, Purple prose in the OP does little to hide things if one has a suspicious mind (or independent knowledge).

    And Ms Myers’s dad should be very glad that she didn’t try calculating 1/e on mechanical devices…

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