If you want to help your kids or grandkids learn more history about interesting ways that women contributed to saving lives during World War II, look no farther than Top Secret Rosies, a PBS video that tells the story of the women who were a part of a secret project to figure our mathematically various trajectories of weapons during the war. Called female computers — that is people who compute — these women were recruited from all over the country to go to Philadelphia and work in secrecy at a special lab set up just for them.
With so many STEM-in-the-curriculum (STEM is short for science, technology, engineering, and math) discussions and the urgency to encourage 21st Century girls and young women to take more interest in science, math, and technology, it’s exciting to discover a resource that shares a story about women and their amazing mathematical achievements. Top Secret Rosies is a one-hour documentary, produced by LeAnn Erickson, a professor at Temple University tells the story.
Trajectories are the paths that projectiles take, once they are fired, to get to a target. Prior to these women calculating the complex mathematical path of these weapons (after testing these weapons at a proving ground, probably in nearby Aberdeen, Maryland), there was no way to know where weapons landed unless soldiers functioned as forward fire spotters.
The spotters were soldiers assigned, at great personal risk, to go ahead of their troops and weaponry, often near or into enemy territory to observe where weapons landed. Their job was to assess where shells landed in relation to the intended target and report back, often via radio, so that the soldiers who were launching the weapons could adjust the launcher’s angle.
Then someone got an idea that it might be possible to compute these trajectories ahead of time so that the soldiers could have them as they fired the weapons. Since so many men were already in the military, the project recruited women who were recommended by their math professors. These women came to Philadelphia and proceeded to calculate trajectories. The Top Secret Rosies’ calculations were compiled and provided to soldiers on the ground, and on ships, and in airplanes, thereby providing valuable, close-at-hand information that improved accuracy. The mathematical calculations spared the lives of soldiers, many civilians, and not an insignificant number of forward spotters.
Sometimes the women referred to by Army as female “computers,” spent the entire day on a single math problem. They were such skilled mathematicians that a small group of the women remained after the war to program ENIAC, the first computer. The Top Secret Rosies documentary tells the story by interviewing some of the women who participated in the project. Erickson, the producer, discovered the Secret Rosies’ story when she was interviewing two of the women in Philadelphia on another topic, and the subject of their World War II service came up in conversation.
A CNN Story, Rediscovering World War II’s Female “Computers” tells much more and features a terrific slide show. The movie is available to watch on Amazon and you can also watch the trailer.
A Quote from the Trailer
They hoped to help win the war, but they were also helping to usher in the computer age that would change the world.