Before John Glenn orbited the earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as "human computers" used pencils, slide rules and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space. Among these problem-solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South's segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America's aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly, these overlooked math whizzes had a shot at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam's call, moving to Hampton Virginia and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. Even as Virginia's Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, the women of Langley's all-black "West Computing" group helped America achieve one of the things it desired most: a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and complete domination of the heavens."--
Shetterly says in the Acknowledgments at the end that, "As the child of a Hampton University English professor and a NASA research scientist, it was probably inevitable that I would eventually write a book about scientists." In the prologue she remembers her father's "engineering colleagues with their rumpled style and distracted manner. . . . That so many of them were African American, many of them my grandmother's age, struck me as simply the natural order of things: growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown."
WWII caused aeronautic engineering to move front and center in the USA as a critical part of the war effort. Just as previously unemployed or underemployed women were needed in many industries at that time, NASA needed reliable mathematicians who could execute complicated mathematical assignments, and could make sure their computations were correct. Small errors could have big effects. Eventually black women from good engineering programs at black schools were targeted. That they succeeded in an era in which "just 2 per cent of all black women earned college degrees" is impressive. Of course, once they started, certain adjustments had to be made (some may wish to read these details first in the book, so I've covered some of this with the "spoiler" indication):
"in 1943, America existed in the urgent present. Responding to the needs of the here and now, Butler took the next step, *SPOILER* making a note to add another item to Sherwood's seemingly endless requisition list: a metal bathroom sign bearing the words COLORED GIRLS." Of course. The young black women were segregated into their own section of NASA, West Computing, and were relegated to their own lunch table, which had a stenciled cardboard sign stating: COLORED COMPUTERS. One of the black computers tossed the sign in the garbage every time it showed up, and finally the person posting the sign gave up. But the black female mathematicians continued to sit at that table.. *END OF SPOILER*
One of the featured women is pioneer Dorothy Vaughan.
"Education topped her list of ideals; it was the surest hedge against a world that would require more of her children than white children, and attempt to give them less in return. The Negro's ladder to the American dream was missing rungs, with even the most outwardly successful blacks worried that in a moment the forces of discrimination could lay waste to their economic security."
"Separate but equal" was the shamefully accepted law and social divider. Dorothy rises to lead West Computing, but it is not until the landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education in the mid-50s that school integration begins to happen and segregation begins to break down. Shetterly adeptly interweaves the social environment of the times through the lives of these women and their families. When West Computing finally is dispersed and its members scattered throughout NASA, it was,
"a bittersweet moment for Dorothy Vaughan. It had taken her eight years to reach the seat at the front of the office. For seven years she ruled the most unlikely of realms: a room full of black female mathematicians doing research at the world's most prestigious aeronautical laoratory."
As full scale integration is beginning, the female mathematicians also find themselves urgently involved in a space race. It is kicked off by Russia orbiting Sputnik over the USA (causing both fear and offended national pride), and President Kennedy promising to land on the moon by decade's end - a seemingly impossible task. "As fantastical as America's space ambitions may have seemed, sending a man into space was starting to feel like a straightforward task compared to putting black and white students together in the same Virginia classrooms." One VA school system actually closes its public schools for five years to avoid integration!
Eventually, indefatigable Katherine Johnson will insist her way into the engineering inner circles, and become critical to the space missions. "Sending a man into space was a damn tall order, but it was the part about returning him safely to Earth that kept Katherine Johnson and the rest of the space pilgrims awake at night." John Glenn insists that she be the one to "check the numbers" before he'll go up. "I loved every single day of it", she says. "There wasn't one day when I didn't wake up excited to go to work." Her work in celestial navigation was essential to the space program's success, including her work product in connection with the moon landing and return. She ends up receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among many other awards.
What a remarkable story Shetterley has given us. Among many other things, we also get to see the huge social importance of the tv show Star Trek, with its futuristic multi-cultural crew and black officer Nyota Uhuru, played by Nichelle Nichols. You'll want to read about Nichols' encounter with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and its effect on her career.
This is a fascinating book, and a good resource both for a little known part of African American history in the U.S., and a behind-the-scenes look at the space program. Four and a half stars.
Margot Lee Shetterley weaves the individual stories of some of these black women with the broader stories of Langley, the Civil Rights movement, and the realities of life in the Jim Crow south, sometimes moving back and forth between a general historical overview and an almost novelistic description of particular people on particular days, complete with details like the color of the autumn leaves. I think how well this approach works varies; it occurred to me more than once that I might have preferred less detached, linear narrative about these women's lives, and more transparent accounts of what the people Shetterley spoke to had to say in their interviews as they looked back on the past. But even if I found the execution somewhat imperfect, the story itself is a fascinating bit of untold history, at once inspiring (because these women were pretty amazing, despite all their disadvantages), and sobering (because it's an unambiguous reminder of the legacy of racial and sexual inequality we have not yet entirely left behind).
Rating: Despite its flaws, I think I'm going to have to give this one a 4/5. If the subject matter sounds interesting to you, I do recommend it.
This is not only a work of historical record in terms of technology, it's also a record of the culture at the time. For just one example, consider this: due to wartime manpower depletion, manpower was needed to fill the vacancies, which meant not only were women (gasp!) considered, but even nonwhite women; it's the latter who made or corroborated on the mathematical calculations possible for spaceflight. Remember the time frame before you judge the following critically, all right? For their contributions, they earned the job title of "colored computer*." *Read again preceding sentence.
With scholarly citations, resources, notes, and bibliography, a work such as this could easily (and commonly) provide a lackluster but informative reading. However, this is not the case because author Margot Lee Shetterly's writing tone is engaging and anything but dry.
This review is based upon the copy of Hidden Figures, earned from LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, August 2016, in exchange for this published unbiased review.
I really, really wanted to like this book about heretofore "hidden figures" - the women themselves and the numbers they ran, which were no guarantee of authorship in technical reports. Though the subtitle mentions the space race, the story of the West Computers - the segregated unit of black women "computers" for NACA - runs from 1946 through 1969. Primarily following the stories of Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Goble and Mary Jackson, Shetterly includes incidences of many more women in the workforce, black and white, which made it hard to follow with all the names and moving back and forth in time when she gave their educational background, early work history and marriages. Other side stories, some more tangential than others, included everything from women at NACA to the challenges of integration in Viriginia schools to Mary Jackson's son's soap box derby. If this reader is any guide, the math and computing details are way over the head of the layperson. Shetterly does not hold back on mathematics, complex vocabulary and sentences, which made for really slow reading. Though it's an important story and researched, the meticulously detailed approach, number of people involved (I really wished for a list of them!), and number of side stories detracted from my reading experience.
Generally, the book is a very fast-paced and interesting read about the black women who worked at the Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia, and their many and varied contributions to the field of aeronautical and astronautical research. It is part biography, part history of NASA, part history of segregation, part history of the civil rights movement, part history of the Virginia peninsula, and part history of women's rights. It is absolutely fascinating.
That being said, the book is very different from the movie, so don't go into it expecting them to be the same. The movie is deeply touching, but it is actually fairly inaccurate, and it has been pretty aggressively whitewashed (see re: the Kevin Costner character). I think it is good to both see the movie and read the book, because one of the critical differences, and the difference that I think is missed entirely by the movie (to its great detriment) is the way in which issues of segregation were actually tackled at Langley. The movie makes it appear that enlightened white men of power were responsible for Langley's integration, when in fact the integration of Langley was almost entirely borne organically and of necessity. The book does a good job of explaining this, whereas that aspect of the movie is almost entirely fictionalized. I thought the movie took away some of the women's victories in this area (Katherine Johnson, for example, never went to the "colored" bathroom. She just used the regular, unlabeled bathroom, and no one ever told her not to), but the book gives the women more credit for their small yet trailblazing acts of defiance.
One other note: the book actually covers quite a bit of complex scientific detail, but it is entirely readable to the layperson.
I highly, highly recommend this book.
I would highly recommend this for anyone interested in math, aeronautics, race relations, etc.
I read the adult version, but I am ordering the young reader’s edition. This novel talks about these amazing black women who began working for the NACA in the 1940s. I see it as a novel more about women than race. In this time period, women had starting working to help out with the war effort (World War II). When the war ended, the men returned and the women were told to go back home and do their “duties.” Some women liked working and were very good at their jobs. These women of this novel were computers, which was deemed a “woman’s job,” like teaching or nursing. Being a computer truly meant being a mathematician. These women were college graduates, and several had advanced degrees. They were as smart as any college-educated man--in fact, they were probably more educated.
When the Soviets started “winning” the space race, the United States stepped up their efforts to advance in the space race and “win.” These women were instrumental. The men were the engineers and were given complete freedom to explore all things science in order to learn and advance. The women were on their teams--although still considered as “computers.” They were just as important as any of the engineers and wanted to be considered engineers, which was a pay raise and more prestige. Afterall, they had the education and the knowledge.
These women spent decades working at NACA, later known as NASA. Because of them, the United States put a man on the moon before the 1960s ended. That they were black is significant because they had a few more hurdles added to them. For example, they were in a separate room from the white women doing the same work. Also, they had to sit at a separate table in the cafeteria. One woman puts the sign in her purse daily. Eventually the sign never reappears. They didn’t mind sitting together and they didn’t mind their table; they just didn’t want a sign telling them they were different.
I had a hard time keeping characters straight because of the linear story, but I found the information very interesting. It’s a very revealing part of the United States history.
By "we", I mean the black women at the center of the stories in the book. They were all brilliant mathematicians. While they were not marching in Selma, they were pushing back against the institutional chauvinism and racism at NASA and predecessors.
For those hoping to make America great again, this book is a clear example that it was not greater for people with dark skin.
I was disappointed in the audiobook version of the book. The reading was bland. At times it sounded robotic. The other problem was keeping track of the women. Ms. Shetterly tells the stories of these brilliant women in overlapping stories that are not always chronological. There was nothing in the audio version to help you track which woman was at the center that particular story. I don't know if the written version does a better job.
The book manages to beautifully paint the larger picture of America during WWII when critical labor shortages provided an opportunity for women mathematicians to overcome racial and sexual discrimination. These women were the key to the US achieving aeronautical superiority in WWII. They worked on planes like the B-29. After the war they were in the forefront on faster-than-sound aircraft work and eventually they worked at NASA.
Through the lives and work of these women you watch America’s civil rights movement take place, spy fears develop during the Cold War and the Rosenberg trial and you take part in the changes of women in the workplace. You can feel the emotions as people watched Russia dominate the skies with the launch of Sputnik.
These women, and the work they did, went largely unknown by the public. But it was known by those whose lives depended upon the women’s output. Before John Glenn left Earth he wanted a human ‘computer’ to check the machine computer’s calculations, “Get the girl to check the numbers,” said the astronaut. “If she says the numbers are good,” he told them, “I’m ready to go.” It was Katherine Johnson who made the most important contribution to the flight as she meticulously checked the numbers generated by a mechanical computer.
Shetterly has also explained the science well. She talks of airfoils, wind tunnels and apogees with clarity and ease. The book is large in scope – from WWII to the present day, from fighter planes and bombers to space flight, from human computers to mechanical ones.
Shetterly has also provided documentation for this remarkable story, some 46 pages of Notes, and 10 pages of bibliography sources. Another 18 pages make up a thorough index. The only thing missing are photographs. They would have made a book already superb so much richer.
I have read books about our space program, and other than to comment that we went to the moon without computers. How is it they managed never to speak of the women mathematicians who were mobilized? And where were the shamefaced (well, they should have been shamefaced) men when American racism caused these women to fade back into the laundries from they were hired?
My hope is that this book is assigned to middle and high school students frequently, along with its companion volume written for younger students. We need to understand what we, as a nation, are missing when we don't utilize the strengths, all the strengths, of our population. Five stars.
This narrative is even more incredible considering the ongoing visceral racism of the South, and the challenge for blacks to get good educations. The black women mathematicians at Virginia’s Langley Research Center were fortunate that their parents were positive role models, working hard for their families and insisting their children get educated. To reach middle class status blacks had to find jobs as teachers, postal employees or small business owners, and even working these jobs earned much less than their white counterparts. The Langley women were curious about the world, science, and motivated, smart and determined to do the best they could for their families, and many were committed to community service.
Randolph Asa Philip, the head of the Black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first mostly black union, insisted that blacks obtain newly available jobs opened by WWII. This results in Executive Order #8802 desegregating defense industry and Executive Order #9346 creating Fair Employment Practices Committee to monitor economic inclusion. FDR opened the door of opportunity to black job seekers! This doesn’t mean that social mores changed overnight.
The black women ‘computers’ worked and ate lunch separately from the white men and women, and unbelievably even had to use ‘black only’ bathrooms. But their hard work, intelligence and commitment to Langley’s mission showed the white, male engineers their professionalism, strong capabilities and potential to provide the help needed. It would take many years before any women white or black would be allowed to work directly with the engineers on critical projects, become engineers, or have reports of their theories and results published under their own names. But some did eventually become equal partners to a number of far-sighted engineers and/or engineering teams.
I am glad I read this book. I learned the important role the NAACP and key individuals played in improving the politics, education and job opportunity and people’s lives, how determination and kindness can act as game changers, how being a smart ‘squeaky wheel’ can help deserving people get promotions, salary raises or new jobs. I especially loved reading how they worked together to help each other, their families and communities, and also developed and propelled the next generation of women into getting jobs at Langley and other labs in science, technology, and math. These wonderfully strong women were a positive force moving science and the US forward.
Even though this is non-fiction the book reads like a novel. Ms. Shatterly introduces her heroines and the reader learns about these amazing women in the context of their time. Despite living in horribly restrictive times – as women and as women of color they break so many barriers. They still deal with being all of the other issues women are still dealing with today – motherhood, discrimination, men claiming their work. But this all happened at a time when blacks were still being relegated to separate bathrooms, water fountains, etc. In fact one of the issues was finding a building for them to work in so they wouldn’t “mix” with the white workers. It does make for some uncomfortable reading at times. As it should.
I was utterly fascinated by the stories of the times, of the women, of the work they did and of how Ms. Shetterly wove it all together. I didn’t know about the movie when I chose to review the book but now I admit I’m looking forward to seeing it. It will add fictional elements of course but I’m sure it will be fascination. These women deserve to be celebrated and it is long overdue.
The movie is excellent, and I enjoyed it more than the book, because it followed three women's stories. This book introduces more women, which is wonderful. But it reads less like a story than a history. Both perspectives are valuable, and I think the movie beautifully complements the book, and vice versa. Highly recommended.