Saturday, December 24, 2016

Figures kept in hiding no longer

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, space program, computers, human computers, civil rights

If the USSR had not launched Sputnik I in 1957, would the civil rights movement in the USA have gone as far as it did in the following decade? This event and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr just over ten years later bookended a sea change in American race relations, and we'll return briefly to that below.

The period 1955-1965 marked a great scientific change also. Prior to the mid-1950's a "computer" wore a skirt and performed calculations on paper forms, though assisted by calculating machines with names like Monroe and Smith-Corona-Marchant. They followed in the proud tradition of "Pickering's Harem", the women who performed astronomical calculations for the Harvard astronomer beginning in the 1880's. At Langley Air Force Base, from the beginning of World War II, women computers did the calculations required to design aircraft that changed how the war was fought, and later, how air frames in general could be made more durable, faster, and more nimble. By 1965 most numerical calculations had been turned over to automatic calculating machines such as the IBM 7090. And the skirted computers? Some had retired or moved on, and many others were dispersed into various engineering groups around Langley.

The existence of these women—these hundreds of computers—is practically unknown. Even more, without the work of Margot Lee Shetterly, hardly anyone of this generation would know, or could know, that about fifty of them were black. An executive order by President Roosevelt opened the door to government employment of black Americans in 1943, and, because Langley AFB was hiring people by the hundreds and thousands for the war effort, many blacks obtained employment there, including black women who were working as underpaid teachers, tutors of mathematics, and in other fields. As Ms Shetterly tells it, in her book Hidden Figures, by the end of the War, it wasn't unusual for a group of white, male engineers to find that the computer assigned to work among them for a time, that small, quiet and unassuming black woman, was the smartest person in the room.

Just over a decade after the War ended, when John Glenn was preparing for his orbital flight in the Mercury "Friendship 7", he didn't wholly trust the mechanical computing equipment and asked for the figures to be checked by "the girl". That "girl" was Katherine G. Johnson, who wasn't just a whiz computer; she had written the definitive report on the calculations needed to plan both easterly- and westerly-launched orbital spacecraft. Once she had verified the calculations, Glenn was satisfied he would be safe enough aloft, and would likely survive the splashdown. She just says she was in the right place at the right time, that it might have been any of "the girls", but we know better.

The Hampton Roads area in which Langley AFB resides is a core population area of eastern Virginia, and Virginia was the core of segregationist attitudes in the Jim Crow south. Racial segregation was like the smell of garlic in a kitchen; it was a part of the atmosphere, and hardly any white person gave it a moment's notice. Any employer other than the US government would have ignored any effort by non-whites to obtain employment outside the few menial areas "allowed" to blacks. But times were changing and the Air Force was hiring. However, segregation still ruled to a great extent. Langley's computing pool was divided into East Computing, where all the women were white, and West Computing, where they were all black.

Hidden Figures chronicles the lives of several of the Langley West computers during the war years, and then the fortunate circumstances that kept many of them employed during the crucial years 1946-1957. At least, I suppose you could call the Cold War "fortunate" for those whose employment depended on military expansion. The arms race with the USSR was not only in the nuclear arena. Fighter and bomber aircraft were getting better and better on both sides of the Iron Curtain. And in America this was largely due to the ex-computers, now engineering assistants and engineers. Several of them became ace programmers, learning FORTRAN almost overnight.

The quantum jump in American attitudes toward science arrived in October, 1957, when the Russians orbited Sputnik I. America was caught flat-footed. And a racial sea change was in the works simultaneously. During and after World War II, as one after another former colony of former European empires established themselves as independent countries, they looked at the world around them and saw America as a stronghold of racial discrimination, particularly as compared with nearly everywhere else. Folks, that right there is at the root of the mostly anti-American stance of the United Nations. To many nations, composed of non-whites, the racial tension that remains in this country besmirches every good-will effort we make.

Simply put, in order to jump-start technical education in America, we simply had to get rid of official segregation. We couldn't afford to waste any brains, of any "color". Hidebound reactionaries like Senator Byrd couldn't see that, but most national leaders could. Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy, and other black leaders took advantage of both the rapidly rising groundswell of black longings, and the growing sympathy for their cause among primarily northern-based political leaders (and a growing minority of southern ones also). The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the end of a long and terrible struggle, and marked the beginning of another, one that is still going on.

Margot Lee Shetterly was, like Katherine Johnson, in the right place at the right time. When the time was ready, it happened that her father knew a few of the retired black computers, and put her in touch with them. They led her to others. She interviewed and researched and chronicled a truly astonishing story of the real brains behind many of the triumphs of American aviation in the 1940's and 50's, and in the space program ever since. It is still true that you can sometimes find yourself in the presence of a quiet black woman who is the smartest person in the room.

As I write this on Christmas Eve, 2016, a movie based on the book is to be released to theaters tomorrow, on Christmas Day. I hope it does the book justice. Even more, I hope the book is nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

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