Charles Petzold

Reading Margot Lee Shetterly’s “Hidden Figures”

September 19, 2016
New York, N.Y.

For a few optimistic years at the beginning of the 20th century, some people believed that the invention of the airplane had effectively ended war. Air warfare was potentially so horrible and so destructive that no country would dare start a war that might make use of airplanes to invade and bomb from the sky.

But when the European powers began battling each other in the Great War, they were only too eager to employ the assistance of flying machines, and they created government agencies to develop and refine the technology. In 1915, the United States followed suit by creating the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) to coordinate and support research for the development of airplanes for the war, headquartered at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia.

The work at NACA continued over the subsequent decades and then ramped up during World War II, becoming crucial for advancing aeronautic science for both military and civilian applications.

The job of aeronautic research combines science, engineering, and mathematics. The engineers at Langley would turn over complex problems to mathematicians, who would break down the problem for the people who did the actual calculations. These people had a facility for working with numbers using mechanical and electromechanical calculators, and they were called "computers." Because many men were off fighting the war, most of the computers at NACA were women.

In 1941, the great civil rights activist and labor leader A. Philip Randolph proposed a march on Washington, in part to demand black participation in war industries. That march never took place, however, because President Roosevelt issued an executive order called the Fair Employment Act to remove racial barriers from defense employment.

And that is how black women computers became part of NACA, and how they later worked at the agency that replaced NACA in 1958 — the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, where (among other jobs) the computers calculated rocket and capsule trajectories.

Author Margot Lee Shetterly knew about these women — and other African-American scientists, engineers, and mathematicians at Langley — because her father was a NASA engineer and research scientist at Langley for 40 years. The book she has written, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, is a fascinating and thrilling story. (A movie adaptation is scheduled for release on Christmas Day.)

Some of these women are now famous. In 2015 President Obama awarded NASA physicist and mathematician Katherine Johnson (who is now 98 years old) the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was the first woman to have her name on a Langley publication (this one). But the more touching stories in Hidden Figures focus on the more obscure women who pioneered at NACA. These were women who excelled in math in grade school and continued their math education at traditional black colleges, but who at that time could expect no higher paying job than a schoolteacher. An entry level job as a computer at Langley paid about two or three times a schoolteacher’s salary, and it was a step towards possible advancement to a higher pay grade as a mathematician or research scientist.

But keep in mind that this was Virginia two decades before the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. State law and longstanding custom mandated segregation. The first five black women computers who started at Langley in 1943 were stationed in the West Area computing office separate from the white computers in the East Area computing pool. (Hidden Figures, pg. 39) These new employees at NACA were accustomed to encountering bathrooms labeled “COLORED GIRLS” (pg. 8) but were startled to see a table in the cafeteria identified by a cardboard sign with “crisply stenciled black letters spelling out the lunchroom hierarchy: COLORED COMPUTERS.” (pg. 43) Interestingly, the sign specified “computers” because no other black workers at NACA were allowed to eat in the cafeteria. “The women of West Computing were the only black professionals at the laboratory — not exactly excluded, but not quite included either.” (pg. 43)

The title of Hidden Figures has a couple different meanings. It refers first to the Langley Laboratory itself: “Langley was one of the United States’ most powerful offensive weapons — a secret weapon, or nearly secret, hidden in plain sight in a small southern town.” (pg. 52) Yet the existence and work of the computers themselves is also generally hidden from our collective sense of the history of computing, and the black women of West Computing are double hidden within this obscure history.

When NACA became NASA, and computers became “math aides” (pg. 190), and NASA started appearing on the TV news and special broadcasts, the face of NASA Mission Control was presented as “white guys in white shirts and skinny black ties.”

The sweep of Hidden Figures extends over two decades through the Moon landing, and it’s a story of several transitions: We see how aeronautics research slowly became aerospace research, and how digital computers and FORTRAN programmers slowly replaced human computers and calculators.

Most of all, Margot Lee Shetterly skillfully weaves in the bigger history of the slow stumbling progress of civil rights, and she is diligent in letting us know what was going on in the wider world and how it affected the women who worked at Langley. (Some of this history is truly hair-raising — such as how segregationists defunded the schools in Prince Edward County, Virginia, rather than allow white and black children to be schooled together, leading to a five-year gap in public school education between 1959 and 1964. (pgs. 203-4))

The COLORED COMPUTERS sign in the Langley cafeteria eventually disappeared forever after it was replaced several times when one of the computers repeatedly stashed the sign in her purse. West Computing itself was dissolved in 1958, which ended workplace segregation at Langley (pg. 171), but curiously, the contingent of black women became somewhat less visible as a group when they were dispersed throughout the rest of NACA and NASA. However evil segregation is, it can sometimes foster camaraderie and community within the segregated group. What comes across most powerfully in Ms. Shetterly’s book is the mutual support and networking of black women professionals at a time when the very concept of “black women professional” was unheard of.

Personally, I would have enjoyed more of the technical aspects of the actual computing work — how differential equations (for example) were prepared for the computers, and how the computers carried out that work. We get brief mentions of Monroe calculators (pg. 126) and Friden calculators (pg. 245) (which I know from my decade at New York Life Insurance Company), but I suspect that resurrecting routine office work form the 1940s is virtually impossible.

Just finding the people who did this work was obviously a formidable job. In the Prologue to Hidden Figures, Ms. Shetterly reports “I can put names to almost fifty black women who worked as computers, mathematicians, engineers, or scientists at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory from 1943 through 1980, and my intuition is that twenty more names can be shaken loose from the archives with more research.” (pg. xvi)

What’s most remarkable about Hidden Figures is that not only the names have been shaken loose, but the living breathing women who grew up enjoying working with numbers, and who found a job doing just that in the most improbable of circumstances at the dawn of America’s most ambitious engineering projects.