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Women's Contributions to Early Computing at the National Bureau of Standards

IP.com Disclosure Number: IPCOM000129945D
Original Publication Date: 1996-Sep-30
Included in the Prior Art Database: 2005-Oct-07
Document File: 11 page(s) / 43K

Publishing Venue

Software Patent Institute

Related People

DENISE W. GURER: AUTHOR [+2]

Abstract

The U.S. National Bureau of Standards (NBS; today known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, NIST) was a leader in the development of electronic computing machines. The SEAC machine, developed at the NBS, was the first operational stored-program computer in the United States and UNIVAC I, developed for the Census Bureau at the NBS, was the first commercial, electronic, digital computer in the United States. The NBS also led the way in developing numerical analysis as a technology and in joining applied mathematics with electronic computing machines.

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Copyright ©; 1996 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Women's Contributions to Early Computing at the National Bureau of Standards

DENISE W. GURER

The U.S. National Bureau of Standards (NBS) was instrumental in the development of what is now known as the field of numerical analysis and had a worldwide influence in defining the role of electronic computers in the scientific community. Women played key roles in all aspects of early computing in the NBS, including mathematics, programming, engineering, and management This paper outlines some of the substantial contributions of women in the early days of computing at the NBS.

Introduction

The U.S. National Bureau of Standards (NBS; today known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, NIST) was a leader in the development of electronic computing machines. The SEAC machine, developed at the NBS, was the first operational stored-program computer in the United States and UNIVAC I, developed for the Census Bureau at the NBS, was the first commercial, electronic, digital computer in the United States. The NBS also led the way in developing numerical analysis as a technology and in joining applied mathematics with electronic computing machines.

Women scientists, mostly mathematicians, were involved in many aspects of this exciting history. The following discourse covers some of the women and their impressive and extensive contributions. Gertrude Blanch and Ida Rhodes were key members of the Math Tables Project, which was the first computing program at the NBS. Mina Rees from the Office of Naval Research (ONR) was highly influential in procuring funds for the NBS in its movement toward building electronic computing machines and establishing the field of numerical analysis. Margaret Fox was involved in the administrative contractual matters of the UNIVAC machines. Ruth Haueter Cahn was the sole woman engineer in the development of the circuits and logic of SEAC. Finally, Ethel Marden, Florence Koons, and Rhodes contributed greatly in programming the SEAC and UNIVAC machines and in training others in machine language.

This paper is intended to capture some of the impressive technical and administrative work that women accomplished in the early days of the NBS, a time when society did not encourage women to be scientists and women scientists were not found in great numbers.

The Math Tables Project

The NBS started its first program in computing in 1938 in response to a Works Progress Administration conference on aid for unemployed mathematicians. This program was called the Math Tables Project (MTP) [1], [2]. The project opened in New York City with a staff of seven mathematicians and 120 high-school graduates, whose goal was to prepare basic tables of exponential and circular functions and to solve scientific numerical problems for government and in...