When Computers Wore Skirts

At the 89th Academy Awards, 2017, the movie Hidden Figures was nominated for best picture and best adapted screenplay. The film told the story of African-American women who worked at NASA and helped calculate flight trajectories for early manned space missions. But in those days women who did this type of work weren't called mathematicians – they were referred to as computers.

The Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, was established in 1917 by NASA's predecessor, the NACA. The Center played a major role in wind tunnel and ballistics testing during WWII; when the space race kicked off in the late 1950s the Center's contributions to the study of flight trajectories and docking maneuvers were crucial to the success of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo projects that sent American astronauts into space.

Langley set up its first "computer pool" in 1935: it consisted of 5 female mathematicians employed to solve complex equations by hand. One of these women was Virginia Tucker, a former high school teacher who, like her colleagues, was officially known as a computer. Over the next 30 years the pool expanded to include hundreds more female computers, many of whom were recruited by Tucker from universities and women's colleges. Most women were in their early twenties, but some were nearer thirty and married to engineers also working at Langley.

Female Computers at Langley

In the early years much of the work done at Langley by female computers was invisible. The women rarely received credit for their work and their names almost never appeared on reports they authored or contributed to. This work, which often involved considerable time recording test data and doing repetitive calculations, was viewed as tedious by male engineers who previously had performed these tasks themselves. According to an NACA memo dated April 1942, Langley's engineers also felt that female computers could do the work more rapidly and with greater accuracy.

The WWII years

During the war years the number of employees at Langley more than tripled and the lab itself doubled in size. New computing pools were created at the wind tunnels and research divisions, and female computers were actively sought to meet the increased workload.

Most computers at this time had university degrees but were classed as subprofessionals. Similarly qualified men were mostly employed as engineers, a professional designation that meant salaries were on average double those paid to female computers. Despite this, computing jobs at Langley generally paid a lot more than jobs available to women elsewhere. Computers who had worked as teachers prior to joining the NACA, for example, were sometimes able to double or even triple their previous salaries. In addition, women considered jobs at Langley interesting and exciting.

The photo below shows one of Langley's giant wind tunnels, where computers and engineers worked on complex tests and aeronautical research. The women typically collected test data and plotted it on worksheets or graphs. All work was done manually, often using slide rules and basic calculating machines. When completed, the engineers would analyze the results and use them to design the next series of tests. According to women who worked at Langley, there was a great feeling of team spirit at this time: staff at the wind tunnels were on first name terms and frequently socialized outside work.

Langley NACA Wind Tunnel

In 1953 an African-American woman named Katherine Johnson was hired by the Langley Research Center as a computer. She was initially assigned to a segregated section known as West Computers (which was where other black female mathematicians worked), but a few weeks later was transferred to the Flight Research Division. When the NACA was dissolved in 1958 and essentially became NASA, Katherine joined the Space Task Force and participated in projects that would profoundly change the course of human history.

The space race began in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched the world's first satellite, Sputnik. Two years later America initiated Project Mercury with the goal of putting an astronaut into space. This was followed by Project Gemini, which in turn was followed by the Apollo series of missions that led to Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. Katherine Johnson was involved in all three projects.

Katherine Johnson NASA

Katherine Johnson's achievements are too numerous to list, though some are highlighted in the movie Hidden Figures. While she's perhaps best known for confirming that IBM calculations for the trajectory of John Glenn's Friendship 7 mission were correct, she considers her best contribution to NASA to be the input that helped synchronize Project Apollo's Lunar Lander with the moon-orbiting Command and Service Module. In 2015 she was invited to the White House to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. The White House described her as "a pioneer in American space history" who had "influenced every major space program from Mercury through the Shuttle program".

Katherine Johnson was far from the only African-American woman to make her mark at NASA. Mary Jackson also began her career as a computer at Langley and after 2 years in the computer pool began experimental research in the wind tunnels, analyzing data related to supersonic flight. She became NASA's first black female engineer and eventually switched to a position in Human Resources, a role that helped her encourage other black women to pursue their dreams. Dorothy Vaughan's contributions are equally memorable: she joined Langley's computer pool in 1943 and worked for NASA until 1971, where she distinguished herself as an accomplished programmer.

Female computers at the Harvard Observatory

At the behest of its then director, Edward Pickering, the Harvard Observatory began recruiting female computers in 1875. A decade later about 80 women were employed at the Observatory, studying glass plate photographs of the skies, measuring the magnitude and position of stars, and cataloging newly discovered galaxies and nebulas.

One of the best known computers from this era was Williamina Fleming, a Scot who emigrated to Boston in the late 1870s and landed a job at the Observatory in 1881. Williamina's output was prolific: she wrote and edited numerous research papers and in 1890 completed one of her most important works, the Draper Catalogue of Stellar Spectra. During her 30-year career she discovered more than 50 nebulae (including the famous Horsehead Nebula) and was the first American woman to become an honorary member of England's Royal Astronomical Society. Williamina Fleming died from pneumonia in 1911, aged 54, and is buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA.

Female Computers at the Harvard Observatory

Another female computer whose work contributed significantly to the science of astronomy was Henrietta Swan Leavitt, a Massachusetts native who began working at the Observatory in 1895. Henrietta's most enduring discovery, now known as Leavitt's Law, was a measuring technique that enables astronomers to calculate distances to remote galaxies.

In 2017 the BBC discussed a project currently underway to digitize 19th-century notebooks kept by the Observatory's computers. The initiative, known as Project PHaEDRA, began in 2016 and aims to transcribe more 2500 notebooks that were recently re-discovered. The name PHaEDRA is an acronym for Preserving Harvard's Early Data and Research in Astronomy. The collection of notebooks is notable not only for its rarity but for its relevance to the history of women in science and the contributions female computers made to our understanding of the universe.

Selected bibliography

Journals, magazines and newsletters

Becker, Kate (2017), "When Computers Were Human: The Black Women behind NASA's Success", New Scientist, archived from the original on 22 November 2018

Gibbons, John (2018), "Underpaid Women Computers Mapped the Universe in the 19th Century", Smithsonian Insider, archived from the original on 1 December 2018

Hirshfield, Alan (2017), "Williamina Fleming", Harvard Magazine, archived from the original on 17 June 2018

Light, Jennifer (1999), "When Computers Were Women", Technology and Culture, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 40 (3): 455-483, ISSN: 1097-3729

McLennan, Sarah; Gainer, Mary (2012) "When the Computer Wore a Skirt: Langley's Computers, 1935-1970", News & Notes, NASA History Office, 29 (1): 25-32, archived from the original on 25 December 2017

Other resources

Newman, Alex (2017), "Unearthing the Legacy of Harvard's Female Computers", BBC, archived from the original on 13 January 2018

Office of the Press Secretary (2015), "President Obama Names Recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom", The White House, archived from the original on 3 December 2018

Saner, Emine (2016), "How History Forgot the Black Women behind Nasa's Space Race", The Guardian, archived from the original on 14 December 2018

Schembri, Frankie (2018), "The Age of Female Computers", Massachusetts Institute of Technology, archived from the original on 28 August 2017