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A Roomful of Women 'Computors'!

Posted by: Murali Madhavan On April 28, 2011 03:20 PM

Do you know that the first Computers in the world were Women?
You heard me right; but it's not in the way you imagine.


The United States of America had a problem.

The Second World War was raging. And the design, manufacture, and induction of new Arms and Ammunition was happening at an ever-increasing rate.

The Aberdeen Proving Ground at Maryland was a very happening place- the United States Army used this facility to test out the new artillery and guns.

The army needed to do a lot of calculation- for each new weapon they needed to know the trajectory and distance the shell would travel, when fired at different angles from 5 degrees to nearly 90 degrees.

They needed lots of people who would do the job. It required knowledge of mathematics, and sincerity and discipline. It needed people who would be patient, wouldn’t take shortcuts, wouldn’t bunk or moonlight, wouldn’t take too many cigarette breaks…

In short, it needed women. It needed women mathematicians, to be precise.

And thus it was, that young Betty Bartik, at the Moore School very near Aberdeen, found herself responding to a recruitment notice from the Army.

Things were not equal for women in those days. Therefore, while male mathematics majors were designated as Mathematicians and given higher-end work, women mathematicians were designated as – hold your breath – ‘Computors’ , and were made to perform the repetitive task of calculating the ballistic trajectories for the new guns and artillery.

In 1942, the Moore school housed a whole roomful of female ‘Computors’ doing this work for the army! And although the work was repetitive, the women weren’t too unhappy because the only other option available to them would have been teaching!

Young Betty found a kindred soul in Kay McNulty, another mathematician who longed to do more, to excel and improve the way things were bbeing done. And she found just the opportunity to do this!

When Kay joined the Moore School as a Computor, she, along with Betty, was assigned to operate the ‘Differential Analyser’ – one of only 5 such machines in the whole world!

The Differential Analyser was a huge mechanical contraption, some 20 feet long, housed in the basement of the Moore School. It could cut short the time of 40 hours needed by the women ‘Computors’ to calculate longhand the trajectory of every projectile. See Ref 7 if you are curious to know how it worked.

Betty and Kay were the only two people assigned to operate it, and the more they worked with it, the more familiar they grew with it, till a point was reached when its complicated operations were plain routine for them!

Now comes the twist in the tale.

John Mauchly came visiting one day, saw the Differential Analyser, saw Betty and Kay working diligently at it- and he was instantly struck with an “Eureka!” moment. And this led to the development of the first Electronic Computer – the ENIAC!

Now who was this John Mauchly?

Please read on to the next part of this new series on the History of Computing…

Tags: Computing Vignettes
 
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