Jun 01 2017

The Computer Wore High Heels


We’ve all heard of Rosie the Riveter, but Melinde Lutz-Byrne discusses how she tracked down Alice Hall – one of the top secret Rosies recruited by the Department of Defense during WWII to act as “human computers” to do calculations for a ballistics program.




I’m Melinde Lutz-Byrne. I teach Forensic Geneaology at Boston University. I’m also Program Director there. I’m also the President of the American Society of Geneaologists and the Co-Editor of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly. By training, I’m an anthropologist and an archivist, and I became fascinated with genealogy when I was about 20 when I discovered there were twins and triplets in my own husband’s family, and it just ballooned from there. Very, very interesting work. The thrill of the detection is really what compels me to do it.

The thing that’s happened today was very interesting. A producer won an award for a documentary about the top secret ‘Rosies’. We all know about Rosie the Riveter, who epitomizes what American women did when their men went to war in World War II. But, I believe the e-book version of this documentary is something like The Computer Wore High Heels.

A small number of very brilliant, mathematically inclined women were recruited by (I think) the Department of Defense to do calculations for a ballistics program that included a long-range bombing site and later had to do with the creation of ENIAC, the early computer.

This producer had been able to find three of the original top secret Rosies in this terrific documentary. A magazine article writer interviewed this producer, and said, “Oh, I know somebody who could help find the other Rosies.” The one that was of greatest interest that had still been among the missing was a woman named Alice Hall who was African American. The only African American woman on the project. So, I was presented with a picture of the group of Rosies and the fact that this took place at the Moore Institute in Pennsylvania and that it started in December of ’42. The trick was to find Alice Hall.

Now you can imagine how many people named Alice Hall there were in the United States in 1942, which was the producer’s problem all along, But, a forensic genealogist knows what to look for and with the key piece of information that she was a brilliant mathematician and what she looked like, I could estimate her age and I went looking in the 1940 census which asks a question of everyone; “What’s the furthest degree of education you’ve completed?” Like eight years of high school or something like that. The only Alice Hall who was African American in the United States in the 1940 in the census who had four years of college was a woman who lived just outside of the Moore Institute in Pennsylvania.

And when I called the producer and said, “Well, I think I found her”, she broke in and said, “Did she have a son?”  Now, this was a worrisome question, because most of these woman that worked were much younger; Alice Hall appeared to be the oldest in the group, and they were unmarried. You could see some of their fingers in the picture, and no wedding rings. You couldn’t see Alice’s hands, so it wasn’t certain, because the Alice I found was married and had a son. So the producer asks me, “Did she have a son?” and suddenly it was not 50% likely, it was much higher. Her obituary written by her niece goes on to say that she would have been a millionaire if she had done the things that she had done in the ‘40s in the 2000’s. She died in 2003, and was a brilliant mathematician, was a school teacher, and was the proper person. Now we’re looking for her son and perhaps there’ll be an addendum to the documentary.