“Rosies and Crypto-Chicks”

Posted on July 15, 2013


In Season 4 of Eureka, time-traveling Allison saves a wounded soldier in the 1940s using medical techniques she gleaned in the future. When we think of occupations of women in the forties, we might think of Army nurses or Rosie the Riveter…time-traveling lifesavers and heavy cryptographers probably don’t pop to mind. But the crypto ladies helped crack the major codes of World War II.

Women in the forties found themselves in all kinds of new and exciting fields of practice, most notably as a important workforce during World War II, making guns and gadgets in factories formerly manned by guys who’d now gone off to fight. Rosie the Riveter may forever be an iconic image of the decade’s working girls (see illustration). One such Rosie was working on an airplane assembly line while her Merchant Marine husband was at war. She was “discovered” by Yank magazine, which was researching a story on Women at Work. Soon after the magazine ran her picture, she was scooped up by Hollywood–and the world was introduced to Marilyn Monroe.

Rosies, WOWs (Women Ordinance Worker), and Wrens (Women’s Royal Naval Service), as the war-birds were called, commonly served tours as nurses and plane riveters for the allied forces. Occasionally war nurses even picked up some medicine along the way like Eureka’s Allison, and were as skilled as male doctors at caring for the wounded in the field. Aside from these well known occupations, women held many lesser known but scientifically and historically significant positions.

Mathletically inclined Rosies were recruited in the war effort to work magic on numbers, giving soldiers better missile accuracy. The complex equations took hours and hours to complete without the help of a computer. Women completed math algorithms to target Axis troops, then logged more overtime and developed ENIAC, a computer which did their equations in minutes. ENIAC has been tapped as a predecessor of modern processors.

Today’s woman with a severe Sudoku addiction may be the type of woman the armed forces were recruiting for their aptitude in cryptography, or code breaking. Elizebeth Friedman cracked the codes that brought down Velvalee Dickinson, a notorious American who delivered military secrets to the Japanese. Elizebeth trained code breakers and recruited talent, such as William F. Friedman, the man she would eventually marry, and who would (unfortunately for her) henceforth receive most of the notoriety for the work Elizebeth had done. (Sigh.)

Elizebeth, along with female math talents who listed crossword puzzles as hobbies of choice, cracked enemy transmission codes such as the famous Nazi Enigma code. These pioneering code-breaking women developed and used the prototypical computer Colossus to ultimately crack the Nazi code used to communicate with their menacing submarine units.

If those contributions from women weren’t enough, the development of the atom bomb, which resulted in a rapid end to WWII, may not have made its impact without two other scientific femmes fatales. Elda “Andy” Anderson, Ph.D., and Maria Goeppert Mayer were on the team of scientists that developed the bomb, but their names aren’t the first we drop when we talk about dropping bombs.

Though Marilyn stayed on in her new role as Hollywood goddess, all the other Rosies had to relinquish their jobs when the troops returned. That didn’t mark the end of women in the world of scientific discovery. Many women wanted to continue their meaningful employment, and found a new social acceptance of women at work. Their ambition propelled them into future careers marked by a Nobel Prize for cancer drug research (Gertrude B. Elien), the discovery that DDT was toxic to far more than just mosquitoes (Rachel Carson), and the first-ever photograph of DNA’s beautiful double helix (Rosalind Franklin).

Despite their accomplishments, women still had a way to go before receiving credit for their efforts. But without their work on DNA, for example, we may never have been able to clone those tasty McCows! So hats off to the women of World War II for getting a foot in the door for future women scientists and opening the door for women’s lib and “equal work for equal pay.”

Kiped from the archives of the SyFy channel’s IdeaLab Blog for the TV show Eureka. Well kinda kiped, since I wrote it to begin with. Edited by Tiffany Lee Brown, without whom I’d be stuck in the land of curly quotes.

Posted in: science, writing