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. Continue reading “The Hidden Figure of Ruth Freshour”