Here is a book review posted by a member or Ricochet.com about black women who did important computations before mechanical computers came along.
‘Hidden Figures’ an inspiring story
Posted: Saturday, November 19, 2016 10:00 pm
By MARK LARDAS
“Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race,” by Margot Lee Shetterly, William Morrow, 2016, 368 pages, hardcover, $27.99
There was a time when calculator or computer was a job description, not a piece of machinery.
“Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race,” by Margot Lee Shetterly, tells the story of one such group.
Before electronic or even mechanical computer appeared the calculations done by these machines had to be performed by hand. The work was both exacting and unexciting. Because it was labor-intensive and it paid relatively poorly, many found it dull.
Prior to World War II, one of the biggest employers of human calculators was NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. NASA predecessor, NACA did work on engine cowls and airfoils requiring dozens of mathematicians.
When World War II began the need for calculators exploded. NACA opened the positions to blacks to fill the openings. In the Jim Crow era many college-educated blacks (or “colored,” as they were then known) were forced into menial jobs because of segregation. These mathematician jobs were only open to women, but many black women had the degrees and background to do the work. It paid much better than work they could otherwise find.
Shetterly tells the experiences of these women. NACA’s headquarters was in Langley, Va., part of the segregated south. Shetterly shows what life was like in the 1940s, when these women were forced to work in segregated offices, using segregated restrooms and dining tables. She relates how the black mathematicians gained acceptance, and gradually threw off the constraints of segregation in the 1950s and 1960s.
“Hidden Figures” also shows how several women, through sheer competence, gained positions of great responsibility. Despite lacking an engineering degree, some earned the job title engineer, doing critical work.
How critical? John Glenn’s trajectory for his Mercury mission was the first produced by an electronic computer. Glenn refused to fly the mission until Katherine Johnson, a black woman at Langley, confirmed the computer’s calculations.
Those believing there has been no Civil Rights progress since the 1940s should read “Hidden Figures.” “Hidden Figures” tells an inspiring story of accomplishment, acceptance and progress.
Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.