Following your dream is never easy and often takes a significant amount of perseverance. Here’s the story of Gertrude Blanch, an incredible woman who achieved her dream and became a member of the clique of influential women that stood at the heart of early computer history, along with Ida Rhodes and Grace Hopper.
To put things into context:
Imagine Poland at the end of 19th century: it is partitioned between the Russian Empire and Prussia. Both sides try to eradicate Polish culture and language by imposing their own. As Poland suffers from poverty and oppression, a mass migration begins.
Gertrude Blanch was born in that country, in a town called Kolno in 1897. Her original name was Gittel Kaimowitz and she was the youngest of 7 children. Her father, Wolfe Kaimowitz was one of the 4 million Poles who migrated to the United States, soon followed by his wife Dora Blanc and their two younger daughters.
Life in the US:
Gittel, who soon became Gertrude, was only ten years old when she arrived into the United States. Only a year after the girl graduated from High School, her father died, so Gertrude took up a job as a clerk to support her mother. She worked at different jobs for over thirteen years, dreaming of higher education, but only after her mother died, in 1927, she decided to pursue it.
The woman was thirty years old at the time and a valuable employee at a hat dealer. As she was planning to leave her job to focus on her studies, the company owner offered to pay for her university just to keep her working. Gertrude took him up on that offer and continued working while studying mathematics at the New York University. Upon graduating, she changed her surname from Kaimowitz to Blanch, an Americanised version of her mother’s name “Blanc”.
She continued her studies at Cornell University, earning both, a Master’s degree and a PhD in mathematics. When she returned to New York, she got a job as a replacement teacher and then a bookkeeper. In order to not lose her mathematical skills, Gertrude signed up for an evening class in relativity. Soon her intelligence and talent were noticed by the lecturer, Arnold N. Lowan. This resulted in him inviting Gertrude Blanch to work for the Mathematical Tables Project, which he had been assigned to lead.
Mathematical Tables Project:
What were they doing? They were solving thousands of mathematical problems every day and combining them into tables.
Why? Because back then there were no calculators and in order for someone to find a sine or a cosine, they had to look it up in a table in a book. Mathematical Tables Project was aimed at creating these books.
Gertrude was the mathematical leader of the project, where she oversaw 450 human computers creating tables for functions. They created 28 volumes of tables for exponential functions, logarithms and trigonometric functions. Most of them have no known errors and have been published by Columbia University Press.
Sidenote: I find this super interesting because in Russian schools they don’t use calculators up to very late age. I remember using these tables before leaving my Russian school for a UK school (where we used a calculator to even multiply, which shocked me initially). It feels like I can almost touch history 🙂
Gertrude designed algorithms making the calculation process more efficient. She became known as a pioneer in algorithms because of that breakthrough. Most of the tables they’ve created at the time were used by mathematicians for years to come and you can still find them if you look hard enough.
A brilliant career in technology:
When World War II came, the Mathematical Tables Project was taken over by the National Bureau of Standards. Blanch led scientific research for the US Army, Navy, the Manhattan Project and many other defence industries.
In 1948 she moved to California and started working for the Institute of Numerical Analysis and later carrying out research for the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. During this time she published around 30 papers and became an early member of the Association for Computing Machinery.
She worked up to when she was 69, after that she stayed in Ohio for another year acting as a consultant for the Air Force Base. She retired in San Diego, but she never really stopped working and researching. She continued her computations until she died in 1996, only a month until her 99th birthday.
As the war ended, the FBI started investigating Blanch because they suspected that she was a communist. The only pieces of evidence they had were that Gertrude’s sister had joined the Communist Party and also the fact that Gertrude herself has never been married and didn’t have children. However, Blanch managed to win the case and cleared her name.
In 1962 Gertrude Blanch was elected as a Fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science and in 1964 she received the Federal Woman’s Award.
Gertrude was an exceptional woman, so determined and completely aware of what she needs. She chose career over family because she had the right to, science fulfilled her and she didn’t need anything else. I admire Blanch because she didn’t listen to society, proved it wrong for judging her and achieved her goals, always aiming higher.