The true story of "Hidden Figures" Katherine Johnson at her desk at Langley with a "celestial training device." (NASA)
The true story of "Hidden Figures"
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As America stood on the brink of a Second World War, the push for aeronautical advancement grew ever greater. It spurred 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, whose 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 now 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, a pioneering civil rights activist, proposed a march on Washington 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. 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.
 
It took decades for Shetterly to realize the magnitude of the women's work.
 
Shetterly began researching these women, but few of these women were acknowledged in academic publications or for their work on various projects. 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.
 
She scoured telephone directories, newspapers, employee newsletters and the NASA archives to add to her growing list of names.
 
"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 Civil Rights Movement.
 
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 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, 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. 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.
 
The book and movie don't mark the end of Shetterly's work, and she continues to collect these names, hoping to eventually make the list available online.
 
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.
 
"Not just mythology but the actual facts," she says, "because the facts are truly spectacular."

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COMMENTS (22)
  • irisp-ste
    2/20/2017 - 08:42 a.m.

    Until the movie entered theaters, I had never heard the stories of the women and their accomplishments described in the film. I find it great that not only women, but women of color, are receiving recognition for their accomplishments in a time when equality is still an issue. It was very brave for the women trust their instincts and disregard everyone else's doubts to achieve such a momentous goal.

  • zakrym-ste
    2/20/2017 - 09:58 a.m.

    This was very interesting to read about. I first heard about this story on the new hit series called Timeless. It is amazing what these women can do with numbers.

  • abigailh-pla
    2/20/2017 - 12:25 p.m.

    This article describes the journey and impact of the African American computers for NASA during the space race as depicted by the movie and book "Hidden Figures." These women were able to first secure jobs at NASA because of A. Philip Randolph and his civic engagement in the form of a march on Washington. This pushed Congress to pass a law prohibiting employers to refuse employees based on their color. Once in the program, both Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden demonstrated their civic engagement by both working to put rockets into space, and standing up for black rights along the way (for example fighting for equal bathrooms). Finally Langley, the author of the book acted with civic engagement simply by exposing the stories of the 'hidden figures' and calling attention to their accomplishments. This article narrates a perfect example of how big changes can happen when many people are civically engaged and work together to make a difference.

  • monicas-ste
    2/20/2017 - 01:51 p.m.

    This is so fascinating. I think this was really cool. This is a really good article.

  • cassidyk-pla
    2/20/2017 - 02:08 p.m.

    This article highlights the background story of the new movie Hidden Figures. It talks about how the author came across the women she focuses her story on and the struggles they faced during the time of gender and racial discrimination in the workforce and beyond. These women were civilly engaged as "human computers" during the late 1930s-50s calculating all the numbers for aeronautical advancements. Although this was an achievement to bring women, both white and black, into the workforce, they still weren't given the same rights as males. I found this article very interesting to read and thought that some of the women mentioned had a lot of courage in the actions they took.

  • charleyh1-pla
    2/20/2017 - 06:24 p.m.

    The Hidden Figures movie was based on actual events written about in Margot Lee Shetterly's book, "Hidden Figures". She explains her connection to Langley by growing up a few blocks away as well as the historical importance to everyone with the civil rights movements of women and African-Americans.
    Personally, I did not like the usage of the word "computers" throughout your article due to the negative connotation you explained at the beginning of the article. By using the word throughout the article, I felt a weird tone. Overall, the equality issue, which is still prevalent today, brings up the question of what we, as a society, can continue to do to bring recognition to past experiences as well as to today's women.

  • bradl-pla
    2/20/2017 - 07:30 p.m.

    In the early 1900s when NASA was known as NACA, the organization employed "Human Computers" to complete calculations to allow the engineers to specialize on ideas. Many of the computers were women, and a large portion of these women were African Americans. These African American women received little praise or recognition for their work, but advanced the scientific world through their work. These women fought racial and sexist stereotypes by attending meetings banned to them, and openly opposing segregation. This helped lead to FDR banning racial discrimination in the US. Gov. and Army. This story applies to communal engagement by showing that we should never give up our ideals in the face of adversity, and that history will validate our stances.

  • brandond-pla
    2/20/2017 - 07:34 p.m.

    This article is about the effect of women, especially colored women, on the scientific efforts of the US during the 1950's. In that era, women were used to do complex calculations for higher level engineers, functioning essentially as human computers. They bore that nickname, and were treated as such. Colored women were quickly discriminated against, but they continued their work for the greater good of the country.

    I applaud these women, who worked long and hard to make the jobs of male engineers and scientists easier. Many of them stood up against the discrimination they faced in the workplace, adding their voices to the Civil Rights movement that was gaining traction. While their work went largely unrecognized, their legacy lives on as their work formed the basis of US space and science programs.

  • brettb-pla
    2/20/2017 - 11:20 p.m.

    Many women have successfully contributed to science in the past(NASA as an example) but have not gotten recognized for their work. This article fills in readers on past achievements of women in science that they might not have otherwise heard about. Women needed courage to fill these positions in science because it was outside their usual gender role.

    I very much liked this article because it explains very clearly the achievements of women I previously had not heard of. I also thought this article was very well written in comparison to many others I have come across on this site.

  • isaiahm-pla
    2/21/2017 - 08:49 a.m.

    During the early to mid 20th century, people needed to make all their own calculations in the aerospace field. Many women were hired by NASA in order to free up their male counterparts to do other tasks, these women were known as "calculators" and possibly numbered in the thousands. The book/movie duo 'Hidden Figures' aims to shine light and give well deserved kudos to the African-American women who have up until recently, been excluded from history books. I think this is a great initiative and it is completely unfair that they have been ignored for so long. I believe it is everyone's civic duty to give people the recognition they deserve as taking credit for someone else's work is selfish and wrong.

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