Recovering the History of Women Computers

As an archivist, I’m not used to covering topical issues.  But the history of women computers in the field of science is suddenly getting a lot of attention.  The latest is the film “Hidden Figures,” which follows four African American women and their careers as mathematicians in Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory’s computer pool.  It’s based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly and it’s slated to hit theaters late this year.

I’ve already mentioned the documentary called The Computers, which focuses on the women who became the first programmers of ENIAC.  More general is the PBS documentary Top Secret Rosies about the women who did ballistics research during WWII:

All this comes as new research shows that women were basically marketed out of the field of computer science during the early days of home computing.  Starting in the mid eighties, the percentage of women in the field of computer science began to drop out of proportion with their presence in other STEM fields.   The dominate theory right now is that home PC’s were specifically marketed to the public as a boy’s toy, creating the perception that all computers and coding were part of the masculine realm for some reason.  This created the stereotype of the male computer geek, and also edged young women out of the discipline.  The discussion is well covered by the Planet Money podcast:

HENN: Now, it’s hard to say if this is straight-up sexism or computer makers just had data that boys were a more receptive audience, but whatever the reason, this fed on itself. In the mid-’80s, you could turn on the TV and see women doctors on “St. Elsewhere.” Claire Huxtable was a lawyer on “The Cosby Show” – cops? – “Cagney & Lacey.” But pretty much anytime a computer was turned on, it was a male nerd running it. Think “WarGames,” “Revenge Of The Nerds,” “Weird Science.”

[…]HENN: By the mid-’90s computer science departments had been transformed. Carnegie Mellon, which had one of the best programs in the country, was 93 percent men. The number of women entering the field had slowed to a trickle …

The focus now is on changing this perception.  As I pointed out last time, the history of American astronomy is intertwined with the history of computer science and women mathematicians.  Astronomy may be the path forward once again.

What Happened to the Women Computers?


I’ve spoken about the Dudley Observatory’s corps of women computers several times now.  Every time, someone has come up to me afterwards to mention that, back in their day, there still were departments of women working low level mathematical jobs.  Without giving away anyone’s age, I can say this runs up until the seventies.

This makes sense.  Although the job would change, the fundamental forces that creating the teams of women computers would stay the same: the job was tedious, time consuming and low status, making it suitable women’s work in a time of nearly unquestioned gender roles.  And women could be hired in greater numbers because they could be paid less, allowing large teams to be created.

And there’s no reason that it should be confined to the field of astronomy.  The factory model of doing mathematical equations seems to have been born in astronomy, but it was too useful to stay there.  

One field where number crunchers were in great demand was ballistics.  During WWI, the militaries of the world realized that the equations for cannon trajectories did not work for modern anti-aircraft guns and bombs dropped from zeppelins.  And so a proving ground for modern weapons was set up in Aberdeen, Maryland, and an office of experimental ballistics was set up in Washington under Major Forest Ray Moulton.

Army ballistics computers in Washington D.C. Taken from Grier's "When Computers Were Human"

Army ballistics computers in Washington D.C. Taken from Grier’s “When Computers Were Human”

In civilian life, Moulton had been a professor of astronomy at the University of Chicago.  This worked well, because the equations for the flight of artillery shells used some of the same calculus as plotting the path of a comet.  And when Moulton went looking for computers, he used the same process used in astronomy and began hiring both men and women. His chief computer was Elizabeth Webb Wilson, a graduate of George Washington University with a degree in mathematics.  

About the time that Dudley was completing its massive star catalog, Virginia Tucker was being hired by Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory to work in a new computer pool.  From 1935 until 1946, Tucker would help calculate drag from wind tunnel tests (another factor in ballistics) in what would eventually become America’s space program.  By the end of WWII, Tucker was overseeing some 400 women computers working throughout the laboratory.

The idea of women computers persisted, even as the equipment went from being pencil-and-paper to adding machines to punch cards.  Eventually the title of “computer” was transferred to the device and the human operator became a programmer.  But the same forces still applied, and so the first programmers were women.

Betty Jennings and Frances Bilas setting up ENIAC

Betty Jennings and Frances Bilas setting up ENIAC

For example, during WWII the Aberdeen Proving Grounds went to work again, this time with 80 women employed at the University of Pennsylvania to calculate ballistic trajectories. In 1945, six of these women were tapped to program a new device known as the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer or ENIAC.  ENIAC is regarded as the world’s first electronic digital computer, making these six women the first programmers in the modern sense.

So there is a direct line between the crews of female computers in observatories like Dudley and the early days of programming.  This story of women’s key role in the trenches of mathematics and programming is a story that is just now being told.  I would recommend David Alan Grier’s book When Computers Were Human for an overview, and the new documentary “The Computers: The Remarkable Story of the ENIAC Programmers” for that chapter of the story.  Of course, that’s not the final chapter by any means, but the rest will have to wait for another post.

Dudley’s Female Computers

Dudley Observatory has spent most of its 160 years as a working science institution, and not a museum.  That means that its employees weren’t always focused on saving the kind of materials that a museum would preserve.  Of course, they saved the astronomical materials they were working with, but not always the bits and pieces of their own history that would be so interesting today.

Which explains why we have so little about the staff of Dudley itself.  Even from Dudley’s height, about 1905-1935, there are only two staff photographs.  One of which survives only because it was used as a bookmark.

Here’s one of those photographs, taken at the South Lake observatory, around 1915:

HumanCalculators[Back: William B. Varnum, Harry Raymond, Benjamin Boss, Sherwood B. Grant, Mrs. Helen McNeill, Miss Grace I. Buffum, Henry Jenkins, Mrs. Livia Clark, Arthur Roy
Middle: (kneeling): Miss Isabella Lange, Miss Alice Fuller
Front: Misses Mary E. Bingham, Florence Gale, Bertha W. Jones, Mabel Aline Dyer]

Page of Albany Directory from 1922 listing Isabella & Marie Lange as Dudley computers

Page of Albany Directory from 1922 listing Isabella & Marie Lange as Dudley computers

One thing you’ll notice: out of the fifteen people here, nine of them are women.  Since Dudley is usually associated with male astronomers – like Benjamin Gould or the Boss family – what are these women doing here?

They were doing what women had done in the field of astronomy since Caroline Herschel became the first female professional astronomer in the 18th century: mathematics.  The Dudley was focused on creating a star catalog, which meant recording the exact positions of stars in the night sky.  Fixing these positions required massive amounts of computation.  Observations had to be run through a tricky statistical equation in order to get the most accurate possible result. At the time, the people who did this kind of work were called “computers”, and for a variety of reasons we can get into later, they were frequently women.

The director of Dudley, Lewis Boss, started the process, and when he died in 1912, his son Benjamin Boss took over. Their ambition was to create the largest and most accurate catalog of its time.  It would ultimately include over 30,000 stars.  This required so many computers that little Dudley Observatory in the sleepy town of Albany became the largest employer of women in American astronomy during the period that that catalog was in the works.  In total, they employed 81 women during this period between 1900 – 1940.

In other times and places, women computers in astronomy would go on to become notable astronomers.  Alas, not at Dudley, where the limited scope of work and limited resources didn’t allow women to branch out.  Just as frustratingly – at least for us – Dudley didn’t collect any personal material from these women.  I can tell you who was on Benjamin Boss’ Christmas card list, but not what Isabella Lange thought of her career in astronomy.

 So, a personal appeal: if you happen to know anything about the women in the photograph above, or any other of Dudley’s female computers, please drop us a line at: .