In early December 1941, Betty Jean Jennings was a freshman completing her first semester at a rural Missouri college. In Philadelphia, Doris and Shirley Blumberg were seniors at Girl’s High and Marlyn Wescoff was completing a minor in business machines at Temple University. In an era of limited career opportunities for women, these bright students anticipated low paying careers as schoolteachers or bookkeepers. But on Sunday, December 7, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and changed these young women’s lives forever. With Pearl Harbor suddenly drawing the US in to WWII, the Army launched a frantic national search for women mathematicians.
“Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII” shares the little known story of female mathematicians who helped win a war and usher in the modern computer age.
Introducing the Documentary Subjects
Doris (Polsky) and Shirley (Melvin), the Blumberg Twins
Doris and Shirley grew up in the Grays Ferry neighborhood of Philadelphia. Their father was a respected real estate broker and both parents were active in the local Jewish community. In May 1942, as the Blumberg twins were graduating from the prestigious Philadelphia High School for Girls, at the urging of their high school principle they became part of a secret ballistics research lab then forming at the University of Pennsylvania.
Marlyn Wescoff (Meltzer)
In May of 1942 Marlyn was just completing a degree in Mathematics Education from Temple University and found that her minor in business machines would serve her well in the booming civilian job market. During the summer of ’42 a family friend told her about a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who was interviewing women to do weather calculations and by fall 1942, she became part of a group of human computers working under the direction of Dr. John Mauchly and his wife Mary.
Betty Jean Jennings (Bartik)
The Great Depression had hit Missouri hard, with farm families struggling mightily to make ends meet. Born the 6th or seven children, Betty Jean was determined to escape farm life and her path out lead through higher education. Thanks to a $400 loan from a beloved aunt, Betty Jean studied mathematics at the local Teacher’s College. Upon graduation in spring 1945, she seized the opportunity to come to Philadelphia, where she joined Doris, Shirley and Marlyn as a ballistics ‘computer’. Little did she know that this trip east would also lead to an unprecedented future as one of the first programmers of ENIAC.
In May 1942 Joe was a graduate student assisting Dr. John Mauchly at the University of Pennsylvania where he had been hired to work as the ‘mechanic’ of UPenn’s Differential Analyzer. The Differential Analyzer was a 30 foot long mechanical calculating machine that generated differential calculations. In June of ’42 the Army took over operation of UPenn’s Differential Analyzer and, understanding Joe’s unique contribution to the workings of the machine, he was deferred from military service so he could keep the Differential Analyzer working 24 hours a day, for the duration.
James ‘Doug’ Mickle
Doug Mickle was a business major at the Drexel Institute of Technology when the war broke out and not waiting to be drafted, joined the Army Air Corp where he became a pilot on a B17 Flying Fortress. By January 1945 Lieutenant Mickle had completed 30 successful missions over Europe, thus fulfilling his duty to Uncle Sam. He remained in the service until September 1945, serving out the last months of WWII in England.
Ed was an engineering student at Drexel when the war broke out and he enlisted in the Army Air Corp. His dream was to become a pilot but he was crushed when the Army said he was too small for the job. However, his small stature was perfect for the role of bombardier and so Ed became a lead bombardier and navigator on a B17. Based out of England, he completed 30 missions with only a minor injury to himself. But the ramifications of his service would stay with him for the rest of his life.
John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert:
In 1942 Dr. John Mauchly was a young physics professor researching weather prediction at the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Engineering, and J. Presper Eckert was a brilliant graduate student in Engineering. To speed up his weather calculations, Mauchly had conceived of a radical new machine, an entirely electronic, digital calculator, and Eckert wanted to help build it.
Captain Herman Goldstine:
Herman Goldstine held a PhD in mathematics from the University of Chicago and with the US entry into WWII, found himself assigned as the supervisor of the Army’s satellite ballistics research lab in Philadelphia at the Moore School of Engineering.
Thanks to Joe Chapline, Goldstine met Dr. Mauchly and heard about his plan to create an electronic digital computer. Convinced his idea could work, in the spring of 1943 Captain Goldstine escorted Mauchly and Eckert to Aberdeen Proving Ground to pitch their idea to the Army brass. The trio was elated when the try-anything Army agreed to fund their project. The development of ENIAC- the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer- was underway.