A new book and movie document the accomplishments of NASA’s black “human computers” whose work was at the heart of the country’s greatest battles
September 8, 2016 | Updated: December 29, 2016
As America stood on the brink of a Second World War, the push for aeronautical advancement grew ever greater, spurring an insatiable demand for mathematicians. Women were the solution. Ushered into the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1935 to shoulder the burden of number crunching, they acted as human computers, freeing the engineers of hand calculations in the decades before the digital age. Sharp and successful, the female population at Langley skyrocketed.
Many of these “computers” are finally getting their due, but conspicuously missing from this story of female achievement are the efforts contributed by courageous, African-American women. Called the West Computers, after the area to which they were relegated, they helped blaze a trail for mathematicians and engineers of all races and genders to follow.
“These women were both ordinary and they were extraordinary,” says Margot Lee Shetterly. Her new book Hidden Figures shines light on the inner details of these women’s lives and accomplishments. The book’s film adaptation, starring Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Henson, is new open in theaters
“We’ve had astronauts, we’ve had engineers—John Glenn, Gene Kranz, Chris Kraft,” she says. “Those guys have all told their stories.” Now it’s the women’s turn.
Growing up in Hampton, Virginia, in the 1970s, Shetterly lived just miles away from Langley. Built in 1917, this research complex was the headquarters for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) which was intended to turn the floundering flying gadgets of the day into war machines. The agency was dissolved in 1958, to be replaced by the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) as the space race gained speed.
The West Computers were at the heart of the center’s advancements. They worked through equations that described every function of the plane, running the numbers often with no sense of the greater mission of the project. They contributed to the ever-changing design of a menagerie of wartime flying machines, making them faster, safer, more aerodynamic. Eventually their stellar work allowed some to leave the computing pool for specific projects—Christine Darden worked to advance supersonic flight, Katherine Johnson calculated the trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo missions. NASA dissolved the remaining few human computers in the 1970s as the technological advances made their roles obsolete.
The first black computers didn’t set foot at Langley until the 1940s. Though the pressing needs of war were great, racial discrimination remained strong and few jobs existed for African-Americans, regardless of gender. That was until 1941 when A. Philip Randolph, pioneering civil rights activist, proposed a march on Washington, D.C., to draw attention to the continued injustices of racial discrimination. With the threat of 100,000 people swarming to the Capitol, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, preventing racial discrimination in hiring for federal and war-related work. This order also cleared the way for the black computers, slide rule in hand, to make their way into NACA history.
Exactly how many women computers worked at NACA (and later NASA) over the years is still unknown. One 1992 study estimated the total topped several hundred but other estimates, including Shetterly’s own intuition, says that number is in the thousands.
As a child, Shetterly knew these brilliant mathematicians as her girl scout troop leaders, Sunday school teachers, next-door neighbors and as parents of schoolmates. Her father worked at Langley as well, starting in 1964 as an engineering intern and becoming a well-respected climate scientist. “They were just part of a vibrant community of people, and everybody had their jobs,” she says. “And those were their jobs. Working at NASA Langley.”
Surrounded by the West Computers and other academics, it took decades for Shetterly to realize the magnitude of the women’s work. “It wasn’t until my husband, who was not from Hampton, was listening to my dad talk about some of these women and the things that they have done that I realized,” she says. “That way is not necessarily the norm”
The spark of curiosity ignited, Shetterly began researching these women. Unlike the male engineers, few of these women were acknowledged in academic publications or for their work on various projects. Even more problematic was that the careers of the West Computers were often more fleeting than those of the white men. Social customs of the era dictated that as soon as marriage or children arrived, these women would retire to become full-time homemakers, Shetterly explains. Many only remained at Langley for a few years.
But the more Shetterly dug, the more computers she discovered. “My investigation became more like an obsession,” she writes in the book. “I would walk any trail if it meant finding a trace of one of the computers at its end.”
She scoured telephone directories, local newspapers, employee newsletters and the NASA archives to add to her growing list of names. She also chased down stray memos, obituaries, wedding announcements and more for any hint at the richness of these women’s lives. “It was a lot of connecting the dots,” she says.
“I get emails all the time from people whose grandmothers or mothers worked there,” she says. “Just today I got an email from a woman asking if I was still searching for computers. [She] had worked at Langley from July 1951 through August 1957.”
Langley was not just a laboratory of science and engineering; “in many ways, it was a racial relations laboratory, a gender relations laboratory,” Shetterly says. The researchers came from across America. Many came from parts of the country sympathetic to the nascent Civil Rights Movement, says Shetterly, and backed the progressive ideals of expanded freedoms for black citizens and women.
But life at Langley wasn’t just the churn of greased gears. Not only were the women rarely provided the same opportunities and titles as their male counterparts, but the West Computers lived with constant reminders that they were second-class citizens. In the book, Shetterly highlights one particular incident involving an offensive sign in the dining room bearing the designation: Colored Computers.
One particularly brazen computer, Miriam Mann, took responding to the affront on as a her own personal vendetta. She plucked the sign from the table, tucking it away in her purse. When the sign returned, she removed it again. “That was incredible courage,” says Shetterly. “This was still a time when people are lynched, when you could be pulled off the bus for sitting in the wrong seat. [There were] very, very high stakes.”
But eventually Mann won. The sign disappeared.
The women fought many more of these seemingly small battles, against separate bathrooms and restricted access to meetings. It was these small battles and daily minutiae that Shetterly strove to capture in her book. And outside of the workplace, they faced many more problems, including segregated busses and dilapidated schools. Many struggled to find housing in Hampton. The white computers could live in Anne Wythe Hall, a dormitory that helped alleviate the shortage of housing, but the black computers were left to their own devices.
“History is the sum total of what all of us do on a daily basis,” says Shetterly. “We think of capital “H” history as being these huge figures—George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Martin Luther King.” Even so, she explains, “you go to bed at night, you wake up the next morning, and then yesterday is history. These small actions in some ways are more important or certainly as important as the individual actions by these towering figures.”
The book and movie don’t mark the end of Shetterly’s work She continues to collect these names, hoping to eventually make the list available online. She hopes to find the many names that have been sifted out over the years and document their respective life’s work.
The few West Computers whose names have been remembered, have become nearly mythical figures—a side-effect of the few African-American names celebrated in mainstream history, Shetterly argues. She hopes her work pays tribute to these women by bringing details of their life’s work to light. “Not just mythology but the actual facts,” she says. “Because the facts are truly spectacular.”
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