More than half a century ago, a computer was a person adroit at processing large sets of numbers through a series of often repetitive, but certainly not trivial, calculations. More often than not, these human computers were women, a significant number of whom were African American.
Margot Lee Shetterly’s excellent Hidden Figures tells the story of a small group of black women computers working out of the segregated West Area Computing at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, a precursor to NASA) in Langley, Virginia. Most of the book focuses on mathematics teacher turned NACA computer Dorothy Vaughan and one of her younger colleagues, Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson (pictured above). Vaughan started at NACA in 1943. She and her fellow female computers, black and white, played a key role in advancing the aeronautics that helped the Allies win World War II. Vaughan eventually took over the day-to-day operations of Langley’s West Area Computers to become one of a handful of female supervisors and NACA’s first black supervisor. It was in this capacity that Vaughan recommended the talented and assertive Katherine Johnson for an opening in the Flight Research Division where she worked out the numbers for John Glenn’s 1962 orbit around the earth and the lunar approaches for Apollo 11 in 1969.
Along with doing their day jobs, the computers at NACA/NASA were among the first women in post-war America to confront gender issues on the job. Additionally, the black women working on the Langley campus dealt with the daily complexities and indignities associated with segregated facilities. How did Katherine Johnson handle the issue? For her, it was a straightforward calculation – she used the whites only bathroom and that was that, end of discussion. As computers transitioned from the human to the inanimate variety, both women remained active contributors technically and institutionally deep into their careers at NASA.
While I knew that women calculators contributed to World War II and beyond, it is a testament to my monumental ignorance that I knew none of the names of these brilliant women or anything about their compelling stories. Thankfully, Hidden Figures provides a captivating antidote that fills in the gaps. Highly recommended for those interested in science, math or Cold War history.