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Rediscovering WWII's Top-Secret Computing 'Rosies' 113

An anonymous reader writes "Women were recruited to do ballistics calculations and program computers during WWII. Half a century later, their work is only beginning to get recognition." Some of that recognition is in the form of a documentary film released in 2010 titled Top Secret Rosies.
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Rediscovering WWII's Top-Secret Computing 'Rosies'

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  • Common practice (Score:5, Informative)

    by Chris Mattern ( 191822 ) on Wednesday February 09, 2011 @03:17AM (#35147810)

    Of course people had to these calculations back then; calculating machines that could do it were yet to be developed. The people hired to do it were almost invariably women. _When Computers Were Human_ (http://www.amazon.com/When-Computers-Human-David-Grier/dp/0691133824/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1297235612&sr=8-1) is a good book on the subject, although it doesn't limit itself to WWII.

  • by tonique ( 1176513 ) on Wednesday February 09, 2011 @04:33AM (#35148154)

    That wasn't the first time women were employed doing calculations. A better known groups is known as "Harvard Computers", where astronomist Edward Pickering hired women to process data. One reason is said to be that women could be paid less than men.

    Two well-known women from that group were Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Swan Leavitt.

    Wikipedia has a short article about them: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvard_Computers [wikipedia.org]

  • by Joren ( 312641 ) on Wednesday February 09, 2011 @04:54AM (#35148218) Homepage
    Randomly saw this article from 2009 a few minutes before seeing this Slashdot story. Seems she had quite the career:

    "Gloria Gordon Bolotsky [washingtonpost.com] was a gifted mathematician who, after working for the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York, moved to the University of Pennsylvania for a position at its engineering school. She was chosen for a secret project that would use her skills and moved with the group in 1947 to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland."
  • by tibit ( 1762298 ) on Wednesday February 09, 2011 @05:14AM (#35148284)

    When Feynman was setting up discretized integrations [google.com] using IBM machines for the Manhattan project, he made a human calculator model for what the IBM kit would do. The girls calculated as fast as the IBM punched-card based system of tabulators, collators, multipliers, adders, etc. In his words:

    The only difference was that the IBM machines didn't get tired and could work three shifts. But the girls got tired after a while.

    Never mind that he loved being around girls ;)

  • Re:Common practice (Score:4, Informative)

    by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) <mojo@world3.nBLUEet minus berry> on Wednesday February 09, 2011 @06:08AM (#35148482) Homepage Journal

    Even when the first computer became available (Colossus) it was mostly operated by women. This is quite a well documented fact and indeed the role of women in WW2 in general is seen as a major advancement for them. There were female code breakers at Bletchley Park and their role has been the subject of more than one documentary.

  • No in fact (Score:5, Informative)

    by ObsessiveMathsFreak ( 773371 ) <obsessivemathsfreak@ e i r c o m . n et> on Wednesday February 09, 2011 @10:49AM (#35150168) Homepage Journal

    This is not the work that was done by Researcher likes Feynman and others, the "calculations" they did were simple assembly line work level.

    As a matter of fact, this is exactly what Richard Feynman worked on during his time in Los Alamos during the development of the atomic bomb.

    Feynman was in charge of a team of human computers, calculating expect bomb yields from theoretical equations or the like. They were using simple mechanical calculators to aid the process, but were otherwise simply "assembly line workers" as you put it. However, it turned out that simply regarding them in that way was not the best way to go about things. Feynman though they should be told what they were working on....

    Then they came to work, and what they had to do was work on IBM machines-punching holes, numbers that they didn't understand. Nobody told them what it was. The thing was going very slowly. I said that the first thing there has to be is that these technical guys know what we're doing. Oppenheimer went and talked to the security and got special permission so I could give a nice lecture about what we were doing, and they were all excited: "We're fighting a war! We see what it is!" They knew what the numbers meant. If the pressure came out higher, that meant there was more energy released, and so on and so on. They knew what they were doing.

    Complete transformation! They began to invent ways of doing it better. They improved the scheme. They worked at night. They didn't need supervising in the night; they didn't need anything. They understood everything; they invented several of the programs that we used.

    So my boys really came through, and all that had to be done was to tell them what it was. As a result, although it took them nine months to do three problems before, we did nine problems in three months, which is nearly ten times as fast.

    My guess is that a study of the history of human computers is likely to shed light on where many of our more esoteric computational algorithms originated from. There's probably an unwritten history of mathematical discovery that took place in these basements and number assembly lines.

e-credibility: the non-guaranteeable likelihood that the electronic data you're seeing is genuine rather than somebody's made-up crap. - Karl Lehenbauer