Thursday, January 25, 2018

"Get the Girl!" Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

The newspaper ad caught the attention of many women.

"Women who are not afraid to roll up their sleeves and do jobs previously filled by men should call the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory."

During World War II, over 19 million Americans, mostly men and mostly draftees, were in the military, leaving a giant hole in the workforce, especially in the area of weapon design. There was only one way to fill that gap in the labor force--HIRE WOMEN.

In 1943, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), based at Langley, Virginia, were charged with developing overwhelming American air power to crush the enemy. Engineers and mathematicians were in critical supply in civilian support agencies, and so the government turned to last pool of workers with these skills--women. In desperation, the government decided to hire both white and black women.

And women rose to the call. High school and college math teachers applied at Langley, and soon two complexes of offices were constructed. The "East Campus" housed white women workers, called "computers," while the "West Campus" became the workplace of many black women "computers." Salaries were comparatively high for those women, and they came to Langley because their families needed the money, but also because they loved mathematics.

An early hire among these women computers was former high school teacher Dorothy Vaughn, who moved to Langley, leaving her children to be cared for by her mother and husband, to follow her passion and to help her country.

Dorothy was a welcome addition to the computer pool. The women had too much work to do in too little time. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics planned to double the size of Langley's West Area in the next three years. The agency was scrambling to keep up with the American aircraft industry, which had gone from the country's forty-third largest industry in 1938 to the world's number one by 1943.

For a gifted mathematician, the chance to work with the physics and mathematics of building better airplanes was an exciting prospect. Dorothy Vaughn specialized in processing the data produced from Langley's new wind tunnels which tweaked aircraft design, moving warplanes from small single-engine fighters at the war's onset to jet-powered planes by its end, and, often working sixteen-hour days, distinguished herself as part of the Cold War and space race advances in flight.

So trusted were the Dorothy and the other black women mathematicians of NACA (now NASA) that when the U.S. was preparing to put the first man into a Mercury capsule to orbit the earth and return, John Glenn insisted on having one of Dorothy Vaughn's co-workers validate the computations of NASA electronic computers:

The human computers crunching numbers were something the astronauts understood and trusted. Spaceship-flying computers might be the future, but John Glenn didn't have to trust them. He did trust the human computer, Katherine Johnson.

"Get the girl to check the numbers," Glenn said.

If Katherine Johnson said the numbers were good, he was ready to go.

The little known story of NASA's black women mathematicians is revealed in Margot Lee Shetterley's Hidden Figures Young Readers' Edition (HarperCollins, 2016), which was made into a movie which won the Academy Award for best picture in 2017. The previously little known story of the "human computers" was in itself a crucible of the massive social changes kicked off by World War II. Changes in civil rights and women's rights began there and continue to be worked out in into the present, and although astronaut Neil Armstrong made his step for mankind, Dorothy Vaughn and Katherine Johnson and their coworkers took perhaps an even more important step for womankind. This book is recommended for use in February's Black History Month in middle and high school classrooms and for International Women's Day in March. Booklist says, “The perfect impetus for discussion on a host of important historical themes germane to the 1950s, such as gender roles, racial prejudice and segregation, and scientific exploration."

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