top of page

The Human Computers

There is a book and there is a movie, but do you really know about these women? We need to know them.

Hidden Figures tells the story of three African American women who literally worked as human computers to figure out issues and solve problems for the engineers and others a NASA. During the first few years of their careers, the workplace was segregated and women were kept in the background. Margot Lee Shetterly’s, author of the book Hidden Figures, father was a research scientist at NASA and worked with many of the books main characters.

As the story unfolds, Shetterly explains how these three women overcame discrimination and racial segregation to become three brilliant achievers in math, science and engineering history.

The first woman, Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, was born August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. She was the youngest of four children born to Joylette and Joshua Coleman. Her mother was a teacher and her father was a lumberman, farmer, all round handyman and was also on staff at the Greenbrier Hotel.

Johnson showed great mathematical abilities from a very early age but because public school was not available for African American students past the eighth grace, her parents enrolled her in high school on the campus of what is now West Virginia State College. She was only ten years old when enrolled and graduated at fourteen, and going on to college there. At fourteen! She took every course offered in math and wowed the staff, who got together and added a new course in math to challenge her. She graduated summa cum laude in 1937 with degrees in math and French. She was eighteen years old.

She taught for a while in the local Black public school, but she really had her sights set on a career as a mathematician. In 1953 she was offered a job at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Lab in Virginia, and became part of the early NASA team. Here she calculated rocket trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo Missions. There is so much more to her story that I hope this has whetted your appetite to read the book, or view the film.

The second woman, Dorothy Johnson Vaughan was born on September 20, 1910, in Kansas City, Missouri. The family moved to Morgantown, West Virginia where she graduated from High school in 1925 and was her class valedictorian. She went on to Wilberforce University on a full scholarship and graduated cum laude at the age of 19 with a B.A. in Mathematics.

She married Howard Vaughan and the couple had six children. She was very devoted to family and the church. She taught math and was viewed as a woman of superior intellect and as an elite in her community.

In 1943 she began a 28 year career as mathematician and programmer at Langley Research Center specializing in calculations for flight paths, and FORTRAN computer programming.

The third woman, Mary Winston Jackson, was born on April 9, 1921 and grew up in Hampton, Virginia. She graduated from he all black training school wit highest honors. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physical science at Hampton University in 1942 and was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha.

She married and had two children, and worked in her community as a Girl Scout leader. She also taught math in a local school. She was recruited by NASA in 1951 as a research mathematician. She took some graduate level courses, by special petition because she was a black woman, and was promoted as an engineer. Ultimately her work was analyzing date from wind tunnel experiments and flight experiments to understand better air flow, including thrust and drag in order to improve U.S. aircraft.

All three women have received honors and acclaim. Presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) applauded the bill after it passed in the House last month.“The groundbreaking accomplishments of these four women, and all of the women who contributed to the success of NASA, helped us win the space race but remained in the dark far too long,” she wrote. “I am proud our bill to honor these remarkable women has passed Congress. These pioneers remain a beacon for Black women across the country, both young and old.”

I would add, not only a beacon for Black women, although that is important, but beacons for all. I know I am grateful and inspired.

bottom of page