Lost stories, hidden figures.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how computing was at one point an occupation, primarily for women who sat at a desk and carried out endless manual calculations. I also pointed out a new movie coming out, Hidden Figures, a fictionalized account of many black female computers and mathematicians who worked at NASA during the space race and were given important responsibilities, such as shock wave research and orbital calculations related to the moon landings.

The Guardian had a nice piece out last week about their work, promoting the movie but also the upcoming book of the same title, by Marg Lee Shetterly. (I didn't realize before that the movie is based on a book! I should put it on my shopping list.) Here's a few highlights:

  • The black female computers were segregated together into a group known as the West Computers (why "West"?)
  • Like other black employees, for many years the West Computers were barred from white employee bathrooms and lunch tables, despite quiet push back and resistance.
  • Although many of the women were initially hired for relatively menial and repetitive computing work, their qualifications were as good or better than many white men with more interesting positions and better promotional paths. Fortunately, several were able, "through sheer force of will" to put themselves forward and found the recognition they deserved.

One of the photographs included in the article shows Katherine Johnson at her desk, in 1966.


Image credit: NASA.

I couldn't help but notice the Monroe calculator on her desk. We've got a few like that in the UW Computer Museum. Unfortunately, most of them were found in closets, hidden away for decades, so I have no idea who might have used them, or for what purpose. Their stories are lost. Fortunately, the stories of these black mathematicians and computers--such as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Christine Darden--have not.

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