The Hidden Figure of Ruth Freshour

Ruth Freshour & Avidac
The expert teaches the newbies how to program a computer.

Today would have been my mother-in-law Ruth Freshour’s 94th birthday.

Ruth would be amazed at the world we live in. Not because she would have been amazed at all the wonderous gadgets we can play with. Not because she would be astounded at how technology permeates our lives. No, she would have been astounded because all of those gadgets and systems and technology are things she had a hidden hand in creating.

She grew up in Worcester Massachusetts, her mother a homemaker and her father, well you could say her father had a variety of ways of making money. Most of those ways involved some form of speculation. Speculation as to the turn of a card or the speed of a horse. He must have been pretty good at it since they lived as comfortably as could be expected during the Depression.

Ruth was a bright girl. Really bright. Smarter than her brother and sister. Smarter than a lot of the boys at school. Smart enough that she could apply to and get into Smith College, one of the “Seven Sisters” colleges, the equivalent in the pre-coed days to the Ivy League. Of course while her classmates had their tuitions paid for via the interest, never the principle, of their trust funds, Ruth’s tuitions were paid via crumpled up fives and tens adorned with cryptic notes about various horses’ pedigrees.

I’m sure the Bursar’s department at Smith must have loved that.

At Smith she studied mathematics, not only out of a cerebral love of math and a feeling of calling to the field but out of the prosaic desire to have a job that paid a decent salary, didn’t involve manual labor, and could put her in position to find a husband who she could feel was her intellectual equal. In 1949 she graduated Smith and began applying for jobs.

A degree in math usually meant a ticket to a teaching position, but teaching jobs were hard to come by. Returning WWII vets got first pick, then any other man, then the other guys, then back to the first guys to see if maybe the other job fell through, and then if desperate finally down to highly qualified women. But find a job she did, with the largest employer of mathematicians in the world at the time — the United States government.

First she was sent to Annapolis Maryland, to the Ballistics Research Lab of the Aberdeen Proving Ground. Aberdeen did the research that developed all types of new weapons. They needed a way to be able to test the theories about what those weapons could do before deciding if it was worthwhile making the weapons. For that you turn to math. Math and a giant room filling box of wires, diodes, and lights with the enigmatic name of Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer.


Ruth spent three years programming the ENIAC though the term programming didn’t even exist back then. It was just math and the people who tamed the mechanical beast were mathematicians, not programmers. She must have been pretty good at it because eventually she got the call to the big leagues and headed off to the deserts of New Mexico, home to the Los Alamos Scientific Lab to work on the math for the second generation of atomic and thermonuclear weapons.

ENIAC had become obsolete by then. Top notch computing was being done on IBM’s first major foray into the computer world, the IBM 701. The first one built went to the IBM headquarters in New York. The second went to Ruth’s new playground. It was used to map out all the permutations of what a hydrogen bomb could do, i.e., destroy.  Additionally her team was tasked with the job of creating a way for the machine to more easily do the tasks assigned to it. They needed a way of inputting data quickly and efficiently. They needed a language that the computer understood and that could be taught to those who would interact with the machine. Her team came up with the Short Hand Coding System or SHACO, one of the first programming languages for computers. (if you click the link pages 45-47 are a report on SHACO’s development) By the way, since the 701 was being used full time, Ruth’s team had to make do with the lab’s older computer to create SHACO. It was called the Mathematical Analyzer, Numerical Integrator, and Computer or MANIAC.

It was also at Los Alamos that she met and married Lt. James Freshour, a mechanical engineer. He almost immediately was shipped off to Korea for a year. Knowing that when he returned Jim would be teaching at Iowa State University, Ruth transferred to the closest facility that had one of her new favorite toys, the Argonne National Lab in La Grange Illinois. This toy was called the AVIDAC. She used the machine to create new programs to help solve complex mathematical problems related to the physics department. She also wrote the first computer program for use in the field of computational chemistry.

And when Jim came back from Korea, Ruth gave it all up to become a fulltime wife and mother. She was 28 years old.

Throughout her career in computing it was a given that at some point she would “settle down”, have some kids, and leave the mentally taxing work of mathematics to men. It was what nearly all the women in the early days of computing did. Frankly, while she was proud of her accomplishments Ruth left computing happily. She saw motherhood as just moving on to another career.

You can move on to another career, but there are aspects of your former career that will never be allowed to leave you. With the nature of what she had been doing for the previous five years, her security clearance was of the highest nature, higher even than her rocket building husband whose own security clearance was pretty high. Outside the labs she never spoke of what she was doing. Outside the shop he never spoke of what he was doing. National security dictated that.

What does a couple talk about at the dinner table when they can’t talk about what they did at work that day? Neighborhood gossip and kid’s school schedules only take you so far. Silence descends. Silence is a dangerous commodity, especially governmental imposed silence. It becomes a way of life, a way of looking at the world. Take in everything, expel nothing. Add in alcohol and the combination can be deadly to a marriage.

At the time of the divorce Ruth and Jim were living in Cupertino California, home to Lockheed Missiles and Space where Jim had gone to work. As she arose from the debris of her marriage Ruth discovered a new world was emerging and by luck she lived at it’s epicenter. A few weeks brushing up on the latest computer languages, languages she saw were the direct descendants of the one she helped write in Los Alamos, and she was back in the computer game.

Ironically she had left computing when being a woman was a disadvantage in the industry. She came back to find many companies wanted to hire her because her gender allowed them to win government contracts that demanded at least some gender equality in the workforce. And having a woman employee with a high security clearance (yes, even after all those years she still had it) was icing on the cake. She happily took advantage of that, job hopping whenever a new employer offered more.

Ruth died in 1998, long enough into the computer age that she could see the fruits of some of her labors but before the advent of computers in everyone’s pocket. The irony of her story is that it was only recently that declassified documents finally allowed her children and grandchildren to understand just what she had worked on.  And how what she worked on had affected the world.

Take a look around you. That person over there that doesn’t seem to be anyone of interest. Take an interest in them, find out their story. Maybe they didn’t turn bits and clicks into a new world, but their story might be just as fascinating.

Because everyone has a story worth hearing. No one should be a hidden figure.

But they kept on kidding you, you had to show them didn’t you

Shapiro Out

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