You probably know about Rosie the Riveter. You see her image on T-shirts nowadays, but the war gave women an effort to show their mental capacity as well. LeAnn Erickson’s 2010 documentary, “Top Secret Rosies: The Female ‘Computers’ of WW II” reveals that like the Navajo Codetalkers, women were another secret weapon that history has yet to recognize. This documentary is currently streaming on Netflix.
In 1942, female mathematicians were recruited to be human computers. Women worked in 24/7 in different shifts to create ballistics tables for every weapon being used by the U.S. military forces. Their work looked at both the Pacific and the European war fronts.
The accuracy of the weapons used by men was improved by the calculations of these women. In time, the first electronic computer (ENIAC) was developed and six women became the first programmers.
Erickson is an associate professor in film and video production at Temple University in Philadelphia. Her previous documentaries include the 2005 “Neighbor Ladies and the 1996 “From One Place to Another: Emma Goldman Clinic Stories.”
Erickson was awarded a Temple University Summer Fellowship in 2012 for the development of an iBookApp (“The Computer Wore Heels”) to go with this documentary.
The documentary includes archival footage and interviews with four women who were the so-called computers. Doris and Shirley Blumberg were twins who joined the secret ballistics unit at the University of Pennsylvania in spring of 1942. Marlyn Wescoff was at the end of her degree program at Temple University and her degree in math education and her minor in business machines helped her become a team member working under Dr. John Mauchly and his wife Mary at the University of Pennsylvania. Betty Jean Jennings was the sixth of seven children in Missouri and borrowed $400 from her aunt to attend a teacher’s college. Graduating in 1945, she joined the other three women as ballistics computers and would eventually be one of the first programmers of ENIAC. Now Doris Polsky and Shirley Melvin, Marlyn Meltzer and Betty Jean Bartik, they recount their experiences.
It can never be too early to let young girls and boys see this documentary although it may come too late to honor some of the women who participated. Hopefully, history books and movies will begin to incorporate the stories of women and minorities (Navajo Code Talkers and MIS) who were secret weapons of war. “Top Secret Rosies” is currently available on Netflix.