The 'house that Dick built': constructing the team that built the bomb.

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Publication details

Rall, DN 2006, 'The 'house that Dick built': Constructing the team that built the bomb', The Social Studies of Science, vol. 36, no. 6, pp. 943-957.

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It is well known that computers were once people rather than machines. While today the focus is often on the hardware, computing as a project bridges the social and the technical; the computing team is the exemplar. This research note explores the evolution of the computing team from an early vantage point: the mathematical team that finished the calculations that delivered the atomic bomb. While the outcome was deplorable, the computing team worked under adverse conditions, and they worked on the world’s largest mathematical problem of its day without computer hardware. Instead, Feynman and Frankel’s team at Los Alamos first relied on scientists’ wives, who volunteered for the project with pencil and paper, then on adding machines powered by the Women’s Army Corps professional female computers, and finally on more advanced calculators run by Special Engineering Detachment specialists (high school graduates with an aptitude for maths) assigned by the US Army. In a few short months, the team’s composition and the necessary computational logic were polished and refined to solve the necessary calculations. To tell the story, this research note relies on Richard Feynman’s eyewitness account, Los Alamos from Below (1980, 1985), which details the growth of a computing team that faced and solved their problems with ad hoc volunteers, a general lack of resources and equipment failure. This team’s problem-solving led to the conventional use of de-bugging subroutines in complex computation. In retrospect, they embody the epitome of modern computing practices, both social and technical-an enduring legacy of the ‘House That Dick Built’.