Computer Science is a remarkably ahistorical field. We don’t do much to celebrate the researchers who came up with our algorithms or wrote our proofs. It’s a huge shame, as there’s some gold in those hills.
Annie Easley had never heard of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) when she read an article about twin sisters who were “human computers” at the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio. The Lab (the predecessor of the NASA Glenn Research Center) was in need of people with strong math skills, and she was in need of a job after recently relocating from Birmingham, Alabama. Two weeks after reading the article, Easley began a career that would span 34 years. She would contribute to numerous programs as a computer scientist, inspire many through her enthusiastic participation in outreach programs, break down barriers for women and people of color in science, technology, engineering, and mathematic (STEM) fields, and win the admiration and respect of her coworkers.
A computer scientist, mathematician, and rocket scientist walked into a bar whenever Annie Easley got thirsty. Nor was she alone.
You’ve heard the names John Glenn, Alan Shepard and Neil Armstrong. What about Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, Kathryn Peddrew, Sue Wilder, Eunice Smith or Barbara Holley? Most Americans have no idea that from the 1940s through the 1960s, a cadre of African-American women formed part of the country’s space work force, or that this group—mathematical ground troops in the Cold War—helped provide NASA with the raw computing power it needed to dominate the heavens.
There’s a great timeline over here, documenting how women of colour became so critical to the space race. Long story short, it was thought that women were better at mathematics and calculation than men, because they paid attention to small details better and could focus on a task more sharply (and in a remarkable coincidence, they also didn’t need to be paid as much and weren’t distracted by offers of higher-profile technical jobs, since only men were courted for those). So starting in the 1940’s, NACA/NASA explicitly started hiring women to do calculation chores and act as computers. When their computing ability was made obsolete by vacuum tubes and silicon, these women became the first programmers.
For me, growing up in Hampton, Virginia, the face of science was brown like mine. My dad was a NASA lifer, a career Langley Research Center scientist who became an internationally respected climate expert. Five of my father’s seven siblings were engineers or technologists. My father’s best friend was an aeronautical engineer. Our next door neighbor was a physics professor. There were mathematicians at our church, sonic boom experts in my mother’s sorority and electrical engineers in my parents’ college alumni associations. There were also black English professors, like my mother, as well as black doctors and dentists, black mechanics, janitors and contractors, black shoe repair owners, wedding planners, real estate agents and undertakers, the occasional black lawyer and a handful of black Mary Kay salespeople. As a child, however, I knew so many African-Americans working in science, math and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.
Thankfully, this slice of computation history won’t remain hidden for long.