“Before Apple, before IBM, and before our modern definition of a central processing unit partnered with memory, the word computer referred simply to a person who computes. Using only paper, a pencil, and their minds, these computers tackled complex mathematical equations” (Holt 13).
By: Danielle Prostrollo
As a woman attempting to make my own contribution to our collective experience I am always keen to learn more about those who have done the impossible, broken ‘glass ceilings’, and changed their field – in little or large ways. And the human computers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory did exactly that.
The forthcoming film Hidden Figures based on the book of the same name, by Margot Lee Shetterly, specifically follows the lives of several female African American human computers who were vital to America’s success in the space race. The film has already garnered a lot of attention from the media, shining a spotlight to the extraordinary contribution of this group of women.
To learn more I picked up Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from missiles to the Moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt and took to the Internet.
My investigation ended up focusing on two women:
1) Barbara “Barby” Canright
2) Macie Roberts
Barby was with the Lab from the beginning, starting out her career as a typist at Caltech (where JPL got its start). She and her husband Richard were friends with the “Suicide Squad” that founded JPL – Jack Parsons, Frank Malina, and Ed Forman.
In school she had always done well in mathematics and science but never imagined a possible career in the field. Despite this, she was ultimately responsible for the thrust-to-weight ratio – an equation that compared performance of the engines under different conditions.
Macie came to JPL having never heard of human computers but quickly rose through the ranks to become the computer supervisor. Before coming to the lab she had a career as an IRS auditor, learning the physics of rocketry at a late age. Because of this, she was a stickler for correct terminology. If you incorrectly called rocket propellant “fuel” she would explain that fuel does not have an oxidizer in it, which is necessary to get the rocket to go anywhere (and if there’s no oxygen in the atmosphere then the rocket will need its own supply of an oxydizer).
As the supervisor Macie was in charge of hiring on new computers. She opted to keep the team women-only in order to promote a cohesive, family-like atmosphere but also because she couldn’t envision a man taking orders from her. We’ve made great strides in all kinds of equality since the ‘60s but there is still far to go!
Holt, N. (2016). Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars.
Worrall, Simon. “The Secret History of the Women Who Got Us Beyond the Moon.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 8 May 2016. Web.
Popova, Maria. “The Rise of Rocket Girls: The Untold Story of the Remarkable Women Who Powered Space Exploration.” Brain Pickings. N.p., 14 Apr. 2016. Web.
Ouellette, Jennifer. “Meet the Forgotten ‘Rocket Girls’ Who Helped NASA Reach the Stars .” Gizmodo. Gawker Media, 07 Apr. 2016. Web.
Atkinson, Joe. “From Computers to Leaders: Women at NASA Langley.” NASA. NASA, 24 Aug. 2015. Web.