An inside look at the World War II–era black female mathematicians who assisted greatly in the United States’ aeronautics industry.
Shetterly’s father, a 40-year veteran of what became Langley Research Center, used to tell her the stories of the black female “computers” who were hired in 1943 to work in the computing pool. The first female computing pool, begun in the mid-1930s, had caused an uproar; the men in the lab couldn’t believe a female mind could process the rigorous math and work the expensive calculating machine. In 1941, Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, desegregating the defense industry and paving the way for Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and others to begin work in 1943. The author never fully explains what machine they were using, but it was likely more advanced than the comptometer. What is perfectly clear is that the women who were hired were crack mathematicians, either already holding master’s degrees or destined to gain one. It was hard enough to be a woman in the industry at that time, but the black women who worked at Langley also had to be strong, sharp, and sufficiently self-possessed to be able to question their superiors—and that is just what they did. They sought information, offered suggestions, caught errors, and authored research reports. The stories are amazing not because the women were extremely smart, but because they fought for and won recognition and devotedly supported each other’s work. Their work outside the office—as Scout leaders, public speakers, and leaders of seminars to promote science and engineering—was even more impressive. They were there from the beginning, perfecting World War II planes and proving to be invaluable to the nascent space program.
Much of the work will be confusing to the mathematically disinclined, but their story is inspiring and enlightening.