Female Role Models: Gertrude Blanch, a pioneer in algorithm design
Following your dream can be hard, and often takes a huge amount of persistence. Here’s the story of Gertrude Blanch, an incredible woman who succeeded in following her dream. She was a member of the clique of influential women that stood at the heart of early computer history. The amazing women along side her? None other than Ida Rhodes and Grace Hopper.
To put things into context:
Imagine Poland at the end of 19th century. It was smack dab in the middle of Russia and Prussia. Both of these countries fought to replace Polish culture and language with their own.
In addition to oppression from both sides, Poland also suffered from poverty. A mass migration began to escape the country.
Gittel, who soon became Gertrude, was only ten years old when she arrived into the United States. Only a year after g, her father died, so Gertrude took up a job as a clerk to support her mother. She worked at differenradt jobs for over thirteen years, dreaming of higher education, but only after her mother died, in 1927, she decided to pursue it.
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 graduating from high school, her father died. Gertrude was forced to start working as a clerk to support her mother. She worked at different jobs for over thirteen years, always dreaming of higher education. When her mother died in 1927, she decided it was time to finally pursue it.
Gertrude was thirty years old at the time and had become a valuable employee at a hat dealer. The owner offered to pay for her university to get Gertrude to keep working for him! Gertrude took him up on that offer while studying math at 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 and a PhD in math. When she returned to New York, she got a job as a replacement teacher and then a bookkeeper. In order to keep her math skills, Gertrude signed up for an evening class in relativity. Her lecturer, Arnold N. Lowan, soon noticed her intelligence and talent. He invited Gertrude 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? There were no calculators back then. 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 to make calculation more efficient. She thus became known as a pioneer in algorithms. Most of the tables they’ve created were used by mathematicians for years to come. You can still find them today!
A brilliant career in technology:
When World War II came, the Mathematical Tables Project was taken over by the National Bureau of Standards. Blanch then led research for the US Army, Navy, the Manhattan Project and many other defense industries.
In 1948, she moved to California and started working for the Institute of Numerical Analysis. Later, she was a researcher 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 until she was 69 years old. She stayed in Ohio afterwards for another year 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 looking into Blanch because they thought that she was a communist. They had just two pieces of evidence. Gertrude's sister had joined the Communist Party. Also, Gertrude never married and didn’t have children. These two pieces of evidence proved not to be enough, since Blanch won the case and cleared her name.
In 1962 Gertrude Blanch was elected as a Fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1964, she received the Federal Woman’s Award.
Gertrude was an exceptional woman: so determined and completely aware of what she needed. 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. She proved it wrong for judging her, and achieved all of her goals. She seemed to always be aiming higher.