'Top Secret Rosies' documentary tells story of women computers in WWII - Technical.ly Philly

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Sep. 22, 2010 11:30 am

‘Top Secret Rosies’ documentary tells story of women computers in WWII

Doris Blumberg Polsky used to be a computer. ‘Top Secret Rosies’ premiere When: Thursday, Sept. 23, 2010, doors 6:30, film 7:00 Where: Franklin Institute. MAP Tickets: FREE, but you MUST RSVP. Call for reservations: 215-448-1254 What: More Info here She was 18 years old and graduating with her twin sister Shirley from Girls’ High in […]

Doris Blumberg Polsky used to be a computer.

‘Top Secret Rosies’ premiere

When: Thursday, Sept. 23, 2010, doors 6:30, film 7:00
Where: Franklin Institute. MAP
Tickets: FREE, but you MUST RSVP. Call for reservations: 215-448-1254
What: More Info here

She was 18 years old and graduating with her twin sister Shirley from Girls’ High in May 1942. They were both bright and studious and looking for a next step, so naturally their principal suggested they join a secret ballistics research lab then forming at the University of Pennsylvania.

Called ‘human computers,’ the hundreds of women across the country who were tasked with complex ballistics mathematics — at ages as early as 18 — are part of another of the often forgotten stories of women affecting the World War II outcome for the United States. In this case, with math and science and technology in West Philadelphia.

The particularly celebrated group of women who were working at Penn — an effort that would lead to the famed development of the world’s first modern supercomputer — are also now the focus of a feature-length documentary from a Temple University professor.

“It’s a story of history and people and their stories that might be lost otherwise,” said director LeAnn Erickson.

After lecturing at Hive76 last month, tomorrow a FREE world premiere of Top Secret Rosies at the Franklin Institute kicks off a national film tour. Watch a preview below.

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“It was always thought likely that the U.S. would have to get involved in the war, so were active with some planning, but, really, we were thrown so radically into the war, that our army had to mobilize quickly,” Erickson, 52, told Technically Philly. “Anywhere there were serious math and engineering programs, there was some kind of research or work happening with the army.

But in true Philadelphia fashion, what made Penn’s program so special was its location. Just 70 miles south was a military research facility and recruiting grounds in Aberdeen, MD. That facility had a differential analyzer, which was then the most advanced piece of computing technology, and the military had housed one of only a handful of other such devices at Penn’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering.

“This wasn’t a Penn program. This was a collaboration between Penn and the army,” Erickson said.

LeAnn Erickson

So, there weren’t many other places where dozens of factors could be integrated into complex ballistics tables to increase the accuracy of gunfire and other weapon use. While every spare man was mobilized abroad, these highly educated, math-orientated females were creating the charts that would dictate from what distance, at what speed and in what direction, say, a Howitzer should be fired from the soft sands of north Africa as opposed to firmer, trench warfare locations in the European theater.

“For a computer doing this by hand, with pencil and paper or perhaps with a desktop calculator, a single [tabulation] could take 40 hours, a full work week,” Erickson said.

In Rosies, Erickson tells the story of the women (and men) who were there, the work they did and how their research helped lead to the funding and development of the ENIAC, which, by most accounts, set into place the great digital revolution of the past half century.

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Erickson, a former high school art teacher who went back to graduate school to study film and got into documentary work in her late 20s, found this story “by accident.”

In 2003, the Glenside native who grew up in the Midwest was interviewing the Blumberg twins for another documentary, called Neighbor Ladies. In 2004, Erickson started research and found no one had done much extensive work on finding the stories of the educated, math-oriented women whose role with technology, science and ballistics made the U.S. military the force that it became.

“I have a long history of personal interest in women’s history and World War II and in finding their lost stories,” Erickson said. “That’s what this is.”

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Christopher Wink

Christopher Wink is a Cofounder, Chief Executive Officer and Publisher of Technical.ly, the local technology news network. In that capacity, he is a co-organizer of Philly Tech Week, Baltimore Innovation Week, Delaware Innovation Week and other events that bring smart people together. Previously, Wink worked for a homeless advocacy nonprofit and was a freelance reporter for a variety of publications. He writes regularly about news innovation and best business practices on his personal blog here and curates a personal monthly newsletter of ideas and links here. The bicycle commuter loves cities, urban politics and squabbling about neighborhood boundaries.

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