Aberdeen Proving Ground honors women scientists

'Top Secret Rosies' were first to operate the breakthrough ENIAC computer

March 24, 2012|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

Winifred "Wink" Jonas remembered her initial encounter with the world's first computer. She had taken a mathematician job at Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1946 and was soon promoted to programmer for the ENIAC — Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer. The astounding machine had taken eight months to assemble, weighed 30 tons and took up an entire room.

"I have never been intimidated in my life by anything or anybody," Jonas said in her Southern drawl. "And I certainly wasn't intimidated by a computer, even though it filled a whole room."

Jonas and the many women who worked with her and followed her into science careers at APG were honored Friday, when officials dedicated a monument to their efforts — the first such recognition from any post in the country, officials said.

In the unveiling ceremony, Col. Orlando Ortiz, garrison commander, called those first women scientists trailblazers.

"We recognize the scientific contributions of women of the past, those working here in the present and the promise of women of the future," Ortiz said. "Because of their gender, these trailblazers' accomplishments were not recognized. They passed through our installation gates and ushered us into the computer industry."

Many military projects were scrapped after the war, but the computer industry won the attention of the military, Jonas said. The ENIAC would solve many problems with weaponry, rocketry and nuclear science — and the women known as "Top-Secret Rosies" worked the intricate systems.

Jonas' $2,644 annual salary was half that of her male co-workers, but she was thrilled to have the job, she said.

"They thought women were half as smart as the men, but we quickly disproved that," she said. "Men were in charge of everything, but I never let that faze me."

The ENIAC inventors came to the wedding of Herb and Wink Jonas 62 years ago in Aberdeen, where they have lived all their married life.

He worked in programming on the post for 36 years. She left after 10 years, when the second of their three children was born. She earned a master's, taught at Harford Day School and eventually returned to APG on a much smaller computer, until she retired 25 years ago.

"What better place for this monument to take root than APG, the home of the Top-Secret Rosies?" said Katherine Hammack, assistant secretary of the Army and keynote speaker. "Wink Jonas defied stereotypes and played a vital role in scientific advancements."

Many young women in the audience owe their educational freedoms to women like Jonas, Hammack said.

"Personally, I think it is inspiring to see someone who worked here and succeeded," said Maggie Weese, a junior at the Science and Mathematics Academy at Aberdeen High School. "I don't know what new discoveries are in the future, but maybe I can be part of them."

Jonas and Hammack removed the camouflage cloth from the polished granite monument to reveal a dedication "to the women whose vital contributions in research, science and technology have advanced our national defense." Flowers, trees and shrubs surround the marker; two benches might encourage some to stop. Hammack said she hoped many will take a moment to reflect on the achievements of so many women.

"It has been a real fight to get noticed," Jonas said. "I am thrilled to see our work recognized. It is great, wonderful and definitely due."

Laurel Allender, director of the Army Research Laboratory at APG, said today's Army is egalitarian.

"You are respected for the work you do," she said. "But I thank women like Wink Jonas. She is still blazing trails."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

A prior version of this story spelled Jonas' name incorrectly. The Sun regrets the error.

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