Early computer trailblazers return to mark ARL anniversary
In 1962, four female civilians with the Ballistics Research Laboratory, or BRL, at Aberdeen Proving Ground posed with components of early electronic computers to announce the invention of the BRL Electronic Scientific Computer, or BRLESC I, the fastest computer in the world at the time.
Little did they know, the photograph would spread all over the world and inspire generations of women to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, fields.
Two of the four women recently returned to the APG organization, now named the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, or ARL, where they spent the majority of their careers.
Patsy Simmers and Norma Stec had not seen each other since Simmers’ retirement in 2001. On June 7, they greeted each other warmly at the building formerly used as a hypersonic wind tunnel, which now is the Department of Defense Supercomputing Research Center.
Stec and Simmers reminisced over photographs depicting the historic computers that lined the walls of the facility, as well as a few familiar faces in the photos.
As they toured the facility, ARL Computational Sciences Division Chief Dr. Raju Namburu, and Computer Scientist Robert “Bob” Sheroke explained how far computing has come since the days when the women used the first iterations of electronic computers.
They said that since the 1940s, the Army sought advanced computers to accomplish things like calculating artillery firing tables. Now, computer scientists at ARL’s DOD Supercomputing Resource Center use high performance computing to increase mission effectiveness through test and experimentation savings and discovering lethality and protection solutions through technology.
After viewing the enormous DSRC Cray XC-40, or Excalibur, one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world, Simmers said she was impressed by the progress.
“It’s just amazing how things just keep continuing to advance,” she said. “It’s exciting to see the advances that have been made.”
They viewed part of the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC, which was one of the world’s earliest general-purpose electronic computers. In the photo, taken 55 years ago— which now hangs in the same room— Simmers is holding the same piece of the ENIAC.
Stec and Simmers left another permanent mark in the history of computing at APG when they signed the photo in the room.
“I didn’t know we were celebrities,” Simmers said.
The pair also glimpsed two new supercomputers that are expected to be operational sometime this summer, the Hellfire and the Centennial systems.
Stec called the tour, “very, very interesting.”
“Seeing all those computers; just seeing how extensive and fast they are,” she said, “it’s hard to believe… all the things that have happened in the years since I’ve left.
“Meeting with Mrs. Simmers and Mrs. Stec was like witnessing the history lanes of computing at our work place,” said Namburu of the visit.
Sheroke added, “For me it was rewarding and remarkable to see them engage and to see their expressions [especially] when we started discussing some of the work that evolved after their efforts in the early days of advanced scientific computing.”
Stec continued to marvel at modern-day technology as she reflected on the visit.
“Did you ever hear that expression that somebody said in the 1900’s [about] anything that could be invented has been invented,” she said. “Wouldn’t they be surprised now.”
This article is part of a three part series. Read about Patsy Simmer’s time at APG and the Ballistics Research Laboratory in the next My APG Story,” series in the June 22, 2017 issue of the APG News. Norma Stec’s experiences will be featured June 29, 2017.