Some WWI tidbits for Veterans Day

by

I was just reading the article “Dr. Veblen Takes a Uniform:  Mathematics in the First World War” by David Alan Grier (from the American Mathematical Monthly, Dec 2001).  The full article is about the Captain Oswald Veblen and the math folk who worked with him at a military facility in Aberdeen, Maryland, but there are plenty of additional tidbits  For example:

Over 150 mathematicians served in the First World War. Many took conventional military roles but half found ways to employ their mathematics. They worked as surveyors, assisted cartographers, and taught trigonometry to officer candidates.  (p. 923)

A lot of the work involved making ballistic tables, which was not such a simple task:

These mathematicians did part of their computing at the actual test ranges, where they served as observers, data collectors, and range officers. On the water range, a large range that ended in the Chesapeake Bay, the mathematicians were stationed on towers along the shore. After they observed the splash of a shell hitting the water, they would compute the range of the shot and telephone their result to the firing station. At the firing station, a second mathematician would adjust the range for changes in temperature, humidity, and wind. Once the series of shots was completed, a mathematician at a central office would compute ballistics coefficients and create range tables.  (p. 927)

Which sounds about as exciting as alphabetizing names for the phone book.  By hand.  In the mud.  Nonetheless, it had to be done and so it was.  Another set of computations, not as cold as the above,  involved solving differential equations numerically to computer trajectories.  The main staff started doing this, but then they got bored and made the enlisted men take over.  In Washington DC, however, there weren’t enough men to do they job and so the Diff Equ was handed off to women:

By early summer, [Forest] Moulton hired eight women. All had graduated from prominent universities during the prior two years. All had been mathematics majors. They came from University of Chicago, Brown University, Cornell University, Northwestern University, Columbia University and the George Washington University. For these women, the war was an opportunity to play a role, perhaps only briefly, on the public stage.  (p. 929)

Rosie the Riveter, meet Connie the Computer!  Actually, the only women mentioned by name is Elizabeth Webb Wilson, who turned down nine other job offers before taking on this job.  And apparently in their spare time, at least some of the women involved also fought for suffrage.

All in all, it was a good read.  Happy Veterans Day!