Wednesday Geek Woman: Gertrude Blanch, algorithm design pioneer

This is a guest post by Beth. Beth is a C++ programmer outside of Boston, MA.

A pioneer in algorithm design for both human and mechanical computers, Gertrude Blanch (February 2, 1897–January 1, 1996) ran the Mathematical Tables Project in New York City and continued to work on algorithm optimizations for mathematical questions until her death in 1996.

An early pioneer in numerical analysis and computation, she received her Ph.D. from Cornell University in algebraic geometry in 1935. She published over thirty papers on functional approximation, numerical analysis and Mathieu functions and became a pivotal figure during the transition from human computers to mechanical, digital computers.

Having run a team of 450 human computers at Mathematical Tables Project in New York City she was in an excellent position to discuss the construction of algorithms during the early days of punch-card machines. In her interview with the Smithsonian she discusses constructing parallel processing algorithms such that the non-mathematicians employed as computers could calculate the tables without understanding the complex math involved, and the use of smoothing function to produce checksums that allowed manuscripts to be proofread for typing errors. Later on she continued with mathematical research, finding ways to make up for mathematical deficiencies in computers designed for industry and quantifying practical considerations when investigating theoretical mathematics on computing machines. She was one of the three women to attend the 1948 customer conference of IBM computer customers. Essentially she stood at the intersection between theory and practicality at a tipping point in the history of mathematics.

She was at one point denied a security clearance after World War II due to suspicions that she might be a communist. In addition to her sister being a member of the Communist party, evidence offered against her included that she had never married or had children. When a hearing was called, her name was cleared and she later became a mathematician and instructor at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in California. She was elected a Fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1962 and was given the Federal Woman’s Award from President Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Wikipedia: Gertrude Blanch
If you have access to IEEE Annels of History, you can read more about here in a piece they did: Gertrude Blanch of the Mathematical Tables Project.
Her papers are available at the Charles Babbage Institute.
You can read the Smithsonian oral history interview with her.

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