The true story of "Hidden Figures"
As America stood on the brink of a Second World War, the push for aeronautical advancement grew ever greater. It spurred a 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. Their work enabled the engineers to be free 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 noticeably missing from this story of female achievement are the efforts contributed by courageous, African-American women. They were called the West Computers. The name was taken 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. Her book is "Hidden Figures." It shines light on the inner details of these women's lives and accomplishments. The book's film adaptation is now in theaters. It stars Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Henson.
"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). Its purpose was to turn the floundering flying gadgets of the day into war machines. The agency was dissolved in 1958. It was 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. The computers would run the numbers often, although they frequently had no sense of the greater mission of the project. They contributed to the ever-changing design of a menagerie of wartime flying machines. Their calculations helped make 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. Technological advances had 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. 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. It was 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. It prevented 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) is unknown. One 1992 study estimated the total topped several hundred. Other estimates, including Shetterly's own intuition, says that number is in the thousands.
Shetterly's father worked at Langley as well, starting in 1964 as an engineering intern. He became a well-respected climate scientist.
It took decades for Shetterly to realize the greatness of the women's work.
Shetterly began researching these women. 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 computer, Miriam Mann, took on responding to the affront. She made it her own personal battle. 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.
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. 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. It is 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."