During World War II, tens of thousands of women took on traditionally male roles while the men who previously filled them were deployed or otherwise engaged in the war effort. At the time computers were essentially people with computational skills that were employed to complete long and complex calculations. The US Military hired hundreds of women to perform calculations for artillery tables and fulfill other military calculation needs. Like the women who had taken on traditional male jobs in other industries, the military’s human computers were known as “Rosies”.
When the process of calculation shifted from manual paper-based calculations to machines with the advent of early military computer projects, many of the women went right along with the shift. Although history has put the spotlight on the men involved in the creation of early computers, there were dozens of women right along with them debugging the room-sized machines, running code, training new programmers, and otherwise working at the forefront of the computer age.
After the war effort spooled down and men started returning and settling back into their regular lives, the majority of the programming “Rosies” were phased out and almost entirely forgotten about. In the mid-1980s a Harvard student, Kathryn Kleiman, uncovered evidence of the women while conducting research for a paper focused on women in computing. She was surprised that very few people had any knowledge of the women who served as human computers and early programmers of machines like the ENIAC and was one of the first to champion for public recognition of their contributions.
Roughly twenty years later, through the work of filmmaker LeAnn Erickson, even more attention was focused on the history of the “Rosies”. While conducting interviews for a documentary Erickson ran into several women who talked about their past lives as government computers and programmers–something Erickson was shocked to realize she’d never heard a thing about. This in turn led Erickson to begin researching the history of the code “Rosies” and culminated in the release of the documentary Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of World War II.