With the attention Hidden Figures has received in the media of late, the story of African American women computers working for NASA during the Moon race is finally starting to be told. While the film takes many liberties with the story of Katherine Johnson and her coworkers, to say nothing of the history of Project Mercury, let me congratulate both the author of the book on which the film is based, Margot Lee Shetterly, and the producers of this movie for bringing out this important story.
As shown in this film, the story of the African American computers working for NASA Langley Research Center in the early 1960s is a story of triumph, of course, something I think Americans need now more than ever. That may be one of the reasons it has resonated the way it has at this moment in time. I can say with certainty that the film overemphasizes the role of the women computers. Neil Armstrong always made a point, when people gushed over his accomplishments as the Apollo 11 mission commander, that he was just one of more than 500,000 people who made it possible to set foot on the Moon. This was an important point. No one person or small group of people made it happen, it was a group effort. That does not mean the contributions of the computers was not significant, they were.
The full story, of course, goes back to before World War II. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) began to employ women to undertake calculations necessary to complete the research reports so prized by the NACA’s aeronautical clients. The term “computer” had been in long usage, and was in essence a job title identifying people who performed mathematical calculations by hand. Although there were already “human computers” at the NACA’s Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, prior to 1935 all of them were male, so the hiring of the first women to perform these tasks proved radical for the time. These women found themselves in the midst of a “men’s club,” the only women at the laboratory up to that point had been working in secretarial and custodial positions.
The first to arrive, Virginia Tucker, reached Hampton, Virginia, just after Labor Day 1935 to join the laboratory’s “Computer Pool.” She found the computers organized into a central office in the Administration Building. They took the readings from research engineers and worked with them to calculate tables illuminating the aeronautical findings. A 1942 report glowed with praise about the work of this group. Many more women would follow; Tucker herself recruiting many of them. Reading, calculating, and plotting data from tests in Langley’s wind tunnels and for other research divisions, they played an integral role in research at the laboratory from the mid-1930s into the 1970s.
World War II dramatically increased the speed of social change at the NACA. As the NACA geared up for World War II it expanded its employee pool of women computers that had first arrived at Langley in 1935. Virginia Tucker had been the first, and she took a lead in expanding the program. She travelled to universities around the nation seeking women educated in mathematics and related fields for work in the NACA laboratories. The engineers came to rely on these computers, remarking that they calculated data “more rapidly and accurately” than the engineers.
During the war employees at Langley expanded dramatically to over 5,000 by 1945. Women computers employed there, like women employed throughout the war effort, proved critical to wartime success. These computers came from everywhere, answering advertisements in trade journals and on pamphlets at colleges and universities as well as being recruited by women already at Langley. Some had friends who told them of the opportunity. Vera Huckel and Helen Willey ended up at Langley by happenstance when they drove friends to the laboratory and heard about the computer jobs while there. They went on to careers that extended into the NASA era.
Officially classed as “subprofessionals,” these were still very good jobs that only a college graduate could aspire to. By 1942 Langley employed 75 female computers. A report noted: “A good number of the computers are former high school teachers. Their ages may average near 21, but there are a surprising number nearer 30 years old. There is no restriction because of marriage; in fact, some of the computers are wives of the engineers of various classification[s] here at NACA.” For example, Rowena Becker had made $550 a year teaching public school in North Carolina. In contrast she earned more than $1,400 a year at Langley.
A computer’s work varied somewhat based on the research project underway, but the computational work involved fundamentally reading raw data, running calculations, and plotting coordinates. They used standard manometers, 10-inch slide rules, Monroe calculators, and other calculating machines to support the organization’s flight research and engineering endeavors
During World War II African American women also found employment as computers at Langley. In 1943 the first six women—Dorothy Vaughan, Miriam Mann, Kathryn Peddrew, Lessie Hunter, Dorothy Hoover, and Kathaleen Land—had entered the NACA as women computers. Langley, located in a part of the Jim Crow South, was segregated and these computers worked in the laboratory’s “West Computing Pool” where they undertook the same work as their white counterparts. Within a short time this team consisted of more than 20 African American women. Despite the restrictions imposed by Virginia’s laws, many of these women worked for years at Langley and eventually integrated into engineering groups focused on flight research, and later, into NASA’s space operations.
The women working as computers at the NACA found both opportunities and challenges. It was a way to use their degrees in the hard sciences in professions formerly closed to them. Even so, they still found their careers hamstrung. They proved themselves, however, and many enjoyed long-term careers at the laboratory. A few used the computer position as a stepping-stone for other positions in the NACA and NASA. The NACA computers of World War II were only a few of the thousands of women employed in similar positions in technical organizations in World War II. They played an important role not only at the NACA, but also in the Manhattan Project, various other scientific and technical organizations, and in ciphers and related fields.
The social transformation just getting under in World War II and manifested at the NACA in the story of the women computers—both white and African American—has not yet been completed.