My APG Story: Former female computer broke ground for women in STEM fields

Patsy Simmers (center) autographs the 1962 photo depicting the progression of electronic computing that she and former coworker Norma Stec (left) posed for as chief of the ARL Computational Science Division Dr. Raju Namburu watches. | U.S. Army photo by Jim Nelson, ARL

“You’re in the wrong room.”

This memorable admonishment greeted former Army Research Laboratory, or ARL employee, Patsy Simmers as she entered an engineering classroom at the College of William and Mary in 1957.

As one of only a few female math majors, and the only woman in her math and physics class, Simmers said her male counterparts wrongly assumed that there was no place for her in the fields of math and science.

Despite the naysayers common to the time, Simmers went on to graduate and eventually worked her way up the computation branch at ARL. Ironically, she became one of the faces in a famous photograph that, to this day, inspires young women who are seeking careers in male-dominated STEM fields, just as she did 50 years ago.

Simmers said she had always been interested in math and that her mother and grandmother, both homemakers, pushed her to go to college.

After graduating with a degree in math in 1959, she applied and was hired by the U.S. Army, which pleased her mother.

“My mother was very proud and she loved to brag… that I was a mathematician,” she said.

Simmers’ main job when she started at ARL— then known as the Ballistics Research Laboratory, or BRL— was to calculate firing tables, or manuals that gave Soldiers data needed to fire accurately on a target under standard conditions, crosswinds, tailwinds, temperature changes, and several other factors. Five hundred sets of conditions were needed for each new gun or shell that was produced.

Before working at ARL, Simmers had never seen or worked with a computer.

“From day one I was doing something I never thought I would…I feel like I was in at the ground floor of computing,” she said.

Simmers worked with the ORDVAC, or Ordnance Discrete Variable Automatic Computer, the third generation used at BRL. It was the first computer capable of being controlled remotely and was the predecessor to the BRL Electronic Scientific Computer, or the BRLESC, both of which were massive by today’s technology standards, taking up entire rooms.

The famous photograph from 1962, which featured Simmers and her coworkers, Gail Taylor, Millicient Beck, and Norma Stec, was taken for the dedication of the BRLESC, which was the first computer completely designed and constructed in-house. According to Simmers, “it cut the programming time in half if not more.”

In the now famous 1962 photo, female computing employees of the Ballistics Research Laboratory (now known as the Army Research Laboratory) hold components of early computers, showing the technology progression. (From left) Patsy Simmers, holding ENIAC board; Gail Taylor, holding EDVAC board; Milly Beck, holding ORDVAC board; and Norma Stec, holding BRLESC-I board.

Simmers recalled that the photograph was meant to show how technology at BRL had advanced throughout the years. She said providing information to the Soldier was the most important part of her job and that with the BRLESC, that information became available at an accelerated pace.

“[BRL] wanted to show how components were getting smaller and how they were getting faster and doing more,” Simmers said. “Initially, firing tables were calculated by hand before the ENIAC. It was mostly women who sat in one big room and calculated trajectories. It took them many hours… and with each new progression of the computer – everything got faster.”

Simmers eventually left computations and continued her career working in the design and fragmenting of warheads. She retired in 2001.

It wasn’t until recently that she realized how the now-famous photograph has inspired and motivated others.

“Well, I didn’t realize [that] until recently when I Googled my name and got 38,000 hits,” she said. “Of course a few of them were not me, but most were using this picture.”

Her advice to girls who are thinking about pursuing a career in the STEM field is to “Go for it. Prove yourself,” she added.

Simmers has lost contact with Beck and Taylor, but she and Stec still touch base occasionally.

While gazing at the photograph that has made her famous, she said, “I can’t believe that many years have gone by to make us part of history… but we are.”

Editor’s Note: This article is the second of a three part series. In the first installment, published June 15, 2017 the APG News covered Simmers and Stec’s return to APG and the Army Research Laboratory where they saw today’s supercomputers. Norma Stec’s memories of working at APG will be featured in next week’s issue, out June 29, 2017.

By Lauren Finnegan, APG News

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