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Spotlight: The Human Touch Behind Some of Our Earliest Calculations

Historical photo shows a head shot of Gertrude Blanch.

Gertrude Blanch

Credit: NIST Digital Archives

This month marks the 75th anniversary of mathematics and statistics as a staple in NIST’s organization. Today, we look at one face behind the fractions. 

From 1938 until 1947, NIST’s Mathematical Tables Project employed people in New York City as human computers, constructing tables of mathematical functions needed for hand computation. Ultimately, the project resulted in 37 volumes of tables for trigonometric functions, exponentials, logarithms and more. By 1940, with a staff of 450 people, it had become the largest computing organization in the world. 

Shown here is a notable one among those 450: Gertrude Blanch. 

Gertrude had a Ph.D. in mathematics but was unable to find employment as a professional mathematician, so she decided to take a night course in physics at Brooklyn College. The class happened to be taught by Arnold Lowan, who was also tapped to lead the NIST project. Because of Gertrude’s high-quality work in the class, he hired her as the first professional mathematician for the project. 

In her time working for NIST, Gertrude became the chief mathematician for the project. She developed programs of sorts for the other employees, most of whom didn’t have many mathematical skills to start with. 

With each person performing a very small task (for example, one person added two numbers provided by another), the group could accomplish highly complex calculations. And Gertrude was the one carefully choreographing that powerful teamwork. 

But this project was only the start of something great. Walk through our milestones in mathematics with this timeline.

Follow us on social media for more like this from all across NIST!

Released July 12, 2022, Updated July 19, 2022