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Veteran’s Day: Honoring the Women Who Wrote Computer Programs to Win WWII

By Melissa Pierce & Marian Mangoubi

On Veterans Day, we honor and remember the brave women and men who fought for and served our country. But for those in tech, today is an especially good day to thank the military servicemen and women who during WWII developed much of our beloved computer technology and used it to bring the war to a swift and final end.

Computers, as we know them, were created in the late 1930s/early 1940s to do complicated mathematical equations faster. During the war years, the military built and used these computers to test and calculate the trajectory of newly developed rocket propelled weapons as well as decode enemy secret messages.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when the US officially entered into WWII, many American men enlisted to fight for their country. But so did Americanwomen. And while women weren’t officially allowed to hold combat roles in the US Military until 2013, women became pilots, radio operators, engineers, mechanics, nurses and, though the term wouldn’t be coined until nearly two decades later, computer programmers.

Many female mathematicians like U.S. Navy Lieutenant Grace Hopper, U.S. Navy Ensign Ruth A. Brendel (Mark I) and the British women who worked at Bletchley Park (the Colossus) were the very first people to use these top secret experimental computing machines to determine ballistics calculations, crack encrypted messages, and run the complicated mathematical programs that would eventually enable the US to develop the nuclear bomb.

Because it had never been done before, they — along with their fellow female civil servants who worked with the U.S. Army (ENIAC 6) — had to design, improvise, and debug the world’s first computer programs.

Until recent activities to bring their efforts to light through documentary projects like our project, “Born With Curiosity: The Grace Hopper Story” and The Computers, military women’s stories have been lost not only to the public at large, but to the tech industry itself. Many a young brogrammer is shocked to discover his ilk didn’t invent the 24-hour coding marathon.

The military women of computer programming slept in shifts, keeping their top secret computing machines running around the clock in an effort to out-calculate their WWII enemy.

So next time you power on your laptop, tablet, or smart phone, remember the dedicated military women of WWII. Not only did they aid in bringing an end to a great and terrible war, they also birthed the computing industry as we know it.

Melissa Pierce is the Producer and Director of ‘Born with Curiosity’ and the award winning documentary ‘Life in Perpetual Beta‘. She also founded Chicago Women Developers (CWD), a non-profit organization that teaches women how to code. You can support ‘Born With Curiosity’ here.

Marian Mangoubi is the Producer, Screenwriter and Researcher of ‘Born with Curiosity’. Prior to this, she has served in various roles while working on film/television/web series productions. She has also spent time working as a digital marketer.

Photo courtesy of Melissa Pierce. Learn more about Grace Hopper and ‘Born with Curiosity’ here.



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