ByDavid Latchman, writer at
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David Latchman

The upcoming Hidden Figures movie tells the incredible story of the human computers who helped America win the Space Race and get their nation to the Moon. The movie is based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. Shetterly grew up near the Langley Research Center where her father worked as a research scientist and where the story seen in Hidden Figures takes place.

The work of these women have largely been forgotten or ignored, but it look as if the movie might change this. This breakdown of the Hidden Figures trailer highlights the events and history of the remarkable women who helped the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) catch up to the Russians in the Space Race.

Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) Was Gifted At Mathematics At An Early Age

Young Katherine solves a quartic equation with ease
Young Katherine solves a quartic equation with ease

The trailer opens with a young Katherine (Lidya Jewett) who shows a strong aptitude in mathematics. Young Katherine was so ahead of the curve, she graduated high school at 14. At 15, she began attending West Virginia State College, where she was mentored by renowned African American mathematicians Angie Turner King and W.W. Schieffelin Claytor. Not only was Claytor the first known male African American to publish a paper in mathematics, he remains a world-renowned topologist, whose work continues to be cited today.

It was Claytor who encouraged the young Katherine to train as a research mathematician. He created some of the classes he knew she would need later in her career, including one course where she was the only student.

Working At NASA

None of the women featured in the movie — Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Johnson Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), or Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) — actually started working for NASA. They all started their mathematical careers at National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the organization in charge of aeronautical research and the precursor to NASA. NACA was largely responsible for America's air superiority in World War II with the introduction of superchargers for high altitude bombers, and for producing the cutting-edge wing profiles for the North American P-51 Mustang.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite. In 1958, anxieties over what would become "the Sputnik Crisis" changed NACA's goals from aeronautical research to space exploration. This lead to the creation of NASA and all of NACA's assets were transferred to the new civilization organization.

West Area Computing Unit (West Area Computers)

Johnson was one of the human computers who worked at the West Area Computing Unit (West Area Computers), a name given to the group of all-African American, female mathematicians at the Langley Research Center that was originally part of NACA. Langley started recruiting African-American women as human computers as early as the 1940s, but Jim Crow laws kept these women separate from their white counterparts.

For many of us, computers are electronic devices, but from the early 17th century up to the 1950s, most mathematical calculations were done by hand; the first electronic computer would not become available until 1951. Work was usually divided up so that teams of people could undertake the long and tedious calculations to arrive at an answer.

This approach was first used in astronomy by Alexis Claude Clairaut, a French astronomer, to divide up the computing needed to determine the timing of the return of Halley's Comet with two colleagues, Joseph Lalande and Nicole-Reine Lepaute. Both Lalande and Lepaute focused on the orbits and gravitational pulls of Jupiter and Saturn on the comet, while Clairaut focused on the comet’s orbit. This improved the accuracy over Halley’s prediction tenfold.

For men, being a computer was a temporary position until they moved on to more advanced positions. For women, the computational work was generally closed, with some exceptions such as Mary Edwards who worked from the 1780s to 1815 as one of 35 computers for the British Nautical Almanac used for navigation at sea.

Dorothy Vaughan working with computers
Dorothy Vaughan working with computers

Human computers continued to play integral roles in the World War II war effort in the United States. Many of people hired to do this job were women due to the depletion of the male labor force caused by the draft. In the early stages of the Manhattan Project, many of the scientists' wives were recruited to work on the complex formulas related to nuclear fission.

The West Area Computers was originally supervised by white section heads but was eventually put in charge of Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), a mathematician who worked there from 1943 through 1971. After NACA became NASA, Vaughan specialized in electronic computing and the FORTRAN programming language.

Johnson Get Reassigned To A New Group

Johnson was a recent transfer to the West Area Computers, having worked there for a few weeks, when the Guidance and Control Division requested her talents. While there, she calculated the trajectory of the space flight for Alan Shepard, the first American in space. Johnson stayed there — she was never returned to the computing pool.

Johnson's curiosity and inquisitiveness stood out. Where many of her colleagues were content to go through the day's calculations, she wanted to know more, how and why things happened. It is this that made her stand out as a remarkable mathematician. Johnson wanted to go further; she wanted to attend briefings and meetings. She was told that women didn’t participate in the briefings or attend meetings. When asked if there were a law against it, she was told the answer was no, and so Johnson began to attend briefings.

Not giving up on old-fashioned brain power.
Not giving up on old-fashioned brain power.

Johnson's intellect and tenacity made her an invaluable part to any team she was a part of. She was so trusted that when NASA first started using digital computers in 1962 to calculate John Glenn's (Glen Powell) orbit around the Earth, Glenn personally asked Johnson to verify the computer's calculations saying that he would not fly until she did. When Johnson did her calculations, her answer was an exact match of the new device. It was Johnson's ability and reputation for accuracy that helped show the new technology was reliable.

An Advocate For Women

Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) also started as a computer in the West Area Computers, where she analyzed data from wind tunnel tests and flight experiments. It would take many years before she was allowed to work directly with the flight test engineers.

Jackson realized that her career, and the careers of many other women like her, was progressing slowly and sought to find out why. She discovered that sometimes the problem was simple. Sometimes it was a matter of insufficient education and the lack of the necessary course requirements, while at other times it could be where a woman was located in a building. There was also the bigger problem of the ever-present glass ceiling that most women seemed to encounter.

Jackson set about quietly advising women on how to change their titles from Mathematician to Engineer. After a 30-year career, advancing to a senior position as an engineer without moving into a supervisory position, she made the decision to transfer to an administrative position. Professionally, this was a demotion, but it also meant Jackson would be in a position to help others. Jackson's behind-the-scene efforts and the changes she made, helped NASA recognize the potential and talents of many of the minorities and women working there.

Fighting For The Chance To Make A Change

The story of the Space Race was a public-relations story as much as it was about scientific and engineering achievement. At the time, the United States was afraid of the Communism threat and having a Soviet-made satellite orbiting around the planet did not help. The country needed heroes they could not only look up to, but adore. The Mercury Seven astronauts were not only chosen for the courage needed to strap themselves into a dangerous rocket, but their wives and children were all shown to the public as the ideal American family. Behind the scenes, scientists and engineers tirelessly worked on the challenges of sending men into space and, ultimately, to the Moon. Some of the people who made this engineering feat possible were the human computers, many of whom were African-American and women.

The social history of human computers is an interesting one, something that Hidden Figures is likely to shed some light on. For many decades, it was assumed that women were unsuited for academia, especially in sciences and engineering. This is especially unfortunate, as many of our advances and accomplishments happened because of the dedication and efforts of some very brilliant women. To ignore that history is to leave out a part of the rich story that is science history and to lie to ourselves.

Watch the trailer for Hidden Figures below:

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