Philadelphia’s secret computers

A documentary about the world’s first computers just arrived in the mail!  I’m excited to tell you about Top Secret Rosies, which was produced and directed by LeAnn Erickson and America’s Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)

Top Secret Rosies Trailer from LeAnn Erickson on Vimeo.

To set the stage speed dating style, two guys, Eckert and Mauchly met in 1941.  They later worked on a machine called the ENIAC which was developed at the University of Pennsylvania in collaboration with the United States government during WWII.

This collaboration was much like the joint effort between Harvard University, IBM, and the US Navy that was behind Aiken’s Mark series of computers.  Aiken began his endeavour at Harvard in 1937. (photo: Mark I detail)

It was later, in the 1950’s, that  Kenneth E. Iverson went to work with Aiken at Harvard and came up with the ideas behind our APL Array Programmning Language family.

As with all human innovations, advances in computer technology developed concurrently.  Many breakthroughs were made in the United States, primarily driven by the “Try Anything” WWII war time attitude of the government.  (A catchy phase, coined by Erickson, in her film. You really should watch it!).

As it turns out, however, the real first computers were women who did ballistic calculations to support the war effort.  Erickson found four of them still living in the Philadelphia area, close to where she lives. 

Philadelphia!  That’s where IBM moved us in the 1970’s.

Erickson does a great job of drawing out the personal histories of these four woman as their careers unfold against the drama of WWII. As Erickson effectively points out, not only were these women the world’s first computers, but they were later recruited to work on the ENIAC, as the first computer programmers.  Not too many people remember that our field was actually started by women.

It’s not difficult to draw an analogy between Erickson’s WWII story line and the APL Array Programming Language connection with the rise of international financial markets, and of course, the drama of subsequent market crashes.  I’ll be studying this excellent film very closely.

By the way, I gleaned dates and my attitude toward first computers from The first Computers: History And Architecture

AND YOU CAN See the Film in Philadelphia!

Date/Time: Tuesday, February 22, 2011 – 6:30pm
Temple Performing Arts Center (formerly known as the Baptist Temple)
1837 N. Broad Street, Philadelphia PA
The event is free and open to the public but ticket reservations are required.
To make free reservations, call (215)204-8660 or email

Date/Time: Wednesday, March 2, 2011 – 7:30pm
Bryn Mawr Film Institute
824 W. Lancaster Avenue, Bryn Mawr PA, 610.527.9898
The event is free and open to the public. Tickets will be available at the door.


8 Responses to “Philadelphia’s secret computers”

  • Catherine, just P.Janssen’s Pharmacy Belgium passed my mind. Their succes story is an APL story. In their APL period they settled more patents than any of their competitors.
    (Now taken over by Johnson & Johnson’s)

  • The movie will be shown at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California on Sunday, 6 March at 4 p.m.

  • aprogramminglanguage aprogramminglanguage

    Awesome, Curtis. It’s a great film.

  • I think I may have mentioned this before, but in the early ’70s, I was a computer myself. One of my first office jobs involved adding up long columns of numbers, and deriving simple statistics from them, for the Research and Standards Branch of the B.C. Department of Education. There was a Smith Marchant calculator in the office which was capable of doing division, but you only got to use it if you were doing something more complicated than four-digit numbers, and then ony if the ‘owner’, Olga, was going for lunch.

    I eventually discovered that the office also had a very early, very simple, desktop computer: an Olivetti Programma 101. It had a mag-card reader, and you could write very simple little programs to do repetitive jobs. Being thoroughly bored with deriving means and modes by hand with a pencil, I taught myself how to program this beast. And that was what started me programming, and thus to APL: mental exhaustion with being a computer myself.

  • aprogramminglanguage aprogramminglanguage

    No Don, I did not know you were computer. Very interesting! Thanks for sharing!

  • Don,
    Hate to make you feel old, but there’s an Olivetti computer on display at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. The 11/30 party a couple of years ago had a talk by Robert Marinelli on his experiences with the 101. There’s a video at .

  • Curtis: thank you so much! That talk by Mr. Marinelli was a complete blast. There was a lot I never knew about the Programma, especially that it dates back to the mid-sixties, and that its memory was delay line. How cool is that?!


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