To the sisters, it was just a job they’d held a long time ago, when they were teens with a talent for numbers.
To filmmaker LeAnn Erickson, it was history rediscovered.
It was 2003 and Erickson was interviewing sisters Shirley Blumberg Melvin and Doris Blumberg Polsky for her documentary, “Neighbor Ladies,” about a woman-owned real estate agency that helped to peacefully integrate a Philadelphia neighborhood. The twins, long-retired by then, reluctantly mentioned a different sort of job they’d held during World War II: Female “computers.”
Computer, at that point, was a job title, not a machine. Long before the sisters were businesswomen, community activists, mothers or grandmothers, they were recruited by the U. S. military to do ballistics research. They worked six days a week, sometimes pulling double or triple shifts, along with dozens of other women.
The weapons trajectories they calculated were passed out to soldiers
in the field and bombardiers in the air. Some of their colleagues went on to program the earliest of general-purpose computers, the ENIAC.
It wasn’t factory work, but they were “Rosies” nonetheless, filling jobs that men would’ve taken if they hadn’t been at war or wrapped up in other military research.
“I said ‘What are you talking about?’ ” Erickson recalled. “I’m an amateur women’s historian, but I’d never heard about this – white-collar women who worked doing math and science under the radar? I didn’t know.”
Erickson, an associate professor at Temple University, didn’t think others knew the story, either.
The memories and witnesses were fading, she realized, and with them, the truth behind women in technology and the first computer programmers would go, too.
Sharing their story
Erickson’s mission to recover the past became “Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of World War II,” a documentary that debuted last year and was released on DVD last month.
Shirley Blumberg Melvin, Jean Jennings Bartik and LeAnn Erickson visited the National WWII Memorial.
“There were lots and lots of women, thousands of women doing this kind of work all across the United States,” Erickson said. “We just don’t know it.”
Erickson’s documentary focused on women plucked from high schools and colleges to work at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1940s. They moved into dorms and apartments and went through a rigorous introduction to ballistics calculations in order to do the job. It paid well, and the women were close. They played bridge, shared dinners and danced together in the university gardens when the war in Europe ended.
Still, they struggled with the knowledge that their calculations – so precise they measured whether an enemy soldier was standing up or lying in a trench – were used at war.
Jean Jennings Bartik was one of the women computers. In 1945, she was a recent graduate of Northwest Missouri State Teachers College, the school’s one math major. She lived on her parents’ farm, refusing the teaching jobs her father suggested, avoiding talk of marrying a farmer and having babies. Bartik was waiting on a job with the military.
When a telegram arrived asking her to come right away, she took a late-night train and began new career in Philadelphia.
She learned the hand calculations, and saw the clunky old analyzer used to speed up the process. Its accuracy depended on the work of her colleagues, and a mechanic who serviced its belts and gears.