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“When the Computer Wore a Skirt:” Langley’s Human Computers 1935-1970
Virginia Tucker first received notice of her appointment at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory while vacationing in California. A former high school teacher with a college degree in mathematics, she arrived the day after Labor Day 1935 to join four other women in Langley’s first “Computer Pool.” Before the development of electronic computers, the term “computer” referred to people, not machines. It was a job title, designating someone who performed mathematical equations and calculations by hand. Over the next thirty years, hundreds of women, most with degrees in math or other sciences would join those first five computers at Langley. Tucker herself helped recruit many of them, traveling to universities and women’s colleges across the South. By 1946, as the overall supervisor for Computing, Tucker presided over a vastly expanded department that had trained about 400 women and placed them in sections across the facility.  Reading, calculating and plotting data from tests in Langley’s wind tunnels and research divisions, human computers played an integral role in both aeronautical and aerospace research at the lab from the mid-1930s into the 1970s, helping it keep pace with the high output demanded by World War II and the early space race. Along with their contribution to the field, Langley’s computers also stood out for another reason: they were all women.
At the time Tucker was hired, Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (LMAL) was the main research center for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, the precursor to NASA). Computing, as profession, dated back to the late-nineteenth century, and typically both men and women were employed as human computers in astronomy, the social sciences, statistical research and ballistics testing.  The first computers at Langley, organized into a central office in the Administration Building, took on calculating work that had originally been done by the engineers themselves. According to a 1942 report, computing sections were designed to process test data more efficiently, relieving engineers of this essential, but time consuming work. Engineers were free to devote their attention to other aspects of research projects, while the computers received praise for calculating data “more rapidly and accurately,” doing more in a morning than an engineer alone could finish in a day.  While the initial computer pool at Langley proved a success, what really drove the expansion of computing (and the expansion of Langley, overall) was the United State’s involvement in World War II.
Between 1941 and 1945, employee numbers at LMAL climbed dramatically from 940 to 3220, and with the construction of the West Area the lab itself doubled in size. In addition to the central pool, computing sections were established in the main wind tunnels and research divisions. To meet the increasing demand of the war effort and offset the loss of manpower as men were recruited to military service, Langley began actively recruiting woman workers. Computing jobs were advertised in trade journals and pamphlets sent to colleges and universities. Recruiters, including Virginia Tucker and some engineers visited campuses. Other women heard about jobs at Langley via word-of-mouth. Elizabeth Kitrell Taylor, for example, applied with a friend of hers who had attended a recruitment meeting at their teaching college, and figured she would work for the duration of the war. Vera Huckel and Helen Willey, two of the earliest computers, filled out applications simply because they had driven friends out to LMAL for interviews. Perhaps ironically, these women’s friends all either backed out or were not hired, while all three of them went on to careers with NACA/NASA that spanned decades.
The qualifications required of women who applied to be computers varied, but everyone had to take the Civil Service Examination. In the 1940s, computers were classed as “subprofessionals,” SP-3 (Junior Computer, $1440/year) through SP-8 (Chief Computer, $3200/year). Most hired at Langley had at least a bachelor’s degree, and many former computers noted in interviews that men with similar qualifications were frequently hired as “Junior Engineers,” a “professional” classification with a starting salary of $2600/year. A 1942 report supplied further statistics on LMAL’s then 75 female computers:
A good number of the computers are former high school teachers. Their ages may average near 21, but there are a surprising number nearer 30 years old. There is no restriction because of marriage; in fact, some of the computers are wives of the engineers of various classification here at NACA.
Indeed, Langley’s hiring practices for computers, which allowed for women to continue employment once married and even while raising a family, were fairly unique in comparison to many jobs available to women at the time. That this practice continued even after World War II and its labor shortages ended suggests that trained computers were employees viewed as worth holding on to.
Working as a computer, despite its subprofessional status, paid much better than the majority of jobs available to women in the 1940s-1950s. It also provided an entry for women into the field of aeronautical research at a time when most simply were not being hired as engineers, and offered another career option besides teaching for those with degrees in the sciences. Teaching in North Carolina, Rowena Becker made $550/year before joining the LMAL computers in 1942, and Marilyn Heyson, hired in 1951, felt a job at NACA offered interesting and exciting opportunities, providing an alternative to starting out as a beginning teacher in South Carolina.
During the 1940s, Langley began recruiting African-American women with college degrees to work as computers. Initially grouped in a segregated section, the “West Area Computers” processed data sent to the pool and also joined sections on a temporary basis when additional help was needed. According to Beverly Golemba’s unpublished study of early computers at Langley, many women were not aware of the West Computers, although both the black and white women she interviewed reported that when computers did do a project with each other “everyone worked well together.” The first African-American computers did the same work as their white counterparts, but in a period when segregation was policy across the South and in the U.S. armed services, they also encountered segregated dining and bathroom facilities, along with barriers to other professional jobs. One woman, for example, recounted being hired to work in the chemistry division, but ended up reassigned to the West Computers because African-Americans were not employed for her original position. Computing sections became more integrated after the first several years. Katherine Johnson, who joined the West Computers in 1953, only spent a few weeks there. Then assigned to work with Henry Pearson in the Flight Research Division, Johnson went on to join the Space Task Force in 1958 where she calculated trajectories for Alan Shepherd and John Glenn’s space flights.
While the specific tasks a computer did varied according to need and her department, the majority of computing work involved three components: reading film, running calculations, and plotting data. During wind tunnel tests, manometer boards measured pressure changes using liquid-filled tubes. Computers “read” photographic films of the manometer readings, and recorded the data on worksheets. Working one on one for an engineer, or collectively in a computing section, computers then ran different types of calculations to analyze the data, and plotted the results on graph paper. All this work was done by hand, using slide rules, curves, magnifying glasses and basic calculating machines, like the Marchant or the more popular Friedan, which could multiply AND calculate square roots. Once completed, the calculations, graphs and other information were checked for accuracy and sent back to the engineers to design the next tests. In interviews, computers recalled a feeling of camaraderie among section employees in this period, as engineers, model builders and computers worked together as a team. Margaret Hurt, whose career at the 16-foot tunnel spanned thirty years, remembered everyone at the tunnel addressing each other by their first names, and frequently gathering for social activities outside of work.
A tremendous variety of research was done at Langley during the era of human computing, with computers playing a role in major projects ranging from World War II aircraft testing, to transonic and supersonic flight research and the early space program. This work required specialized knowledge, and Langley’s computers devised computing methods and techniques specific to aeronautics and aerospace research. Some literally wrote a book on the subject. Helen Willey, for example, edited A Manual for the Reduction of Data from the 8-Foot Transonic Pressure Tunnel, while several Langley computers consulted on Monroe Methods for Algebra, a guide to using calculating machines in aeronautical research. A number of computers also collaborated with engineers and co-authored research reports. With the introduction of the first electronic computers, human computers took on programming duties as well. The “Bell Electronic Computer,” a huge machine acquired by NACA in 1947, had its own computing group headed by Sara Bullock. They were in charge of programming the machine, which used “punch tapes” of data to run calculations for “transonic aerodynamic equations.” When Christine Darden was hired as a computer in 1967, she had already studied programming in college. Frustrated by lack of promotion after five years of computing and programming, she transferred to sonic boom research, eventually earning a PhD in engineering and becoming an engineer in supersonic aerodynamics.
Women working as computers at Langley found the job offered both challenges and opportunities. Starting out with a sub-professional classification in a section with limited options for promotion, computers had to prove that women could successfully do the work, and seek out their own opportunities for advancement. Many ended up making a long-term career out of what they thought would be a temporary job, while others, like Christine Darden, Pat West, and Marilyn Heyson moved from computing into other careers at Langley. While acknowledging these challenges, former computers also took pride in their work, enjoying the challenge it offered and feeling engaged in the research process they contributed to. Often overlooked in histories of technology, and even in histories of human computing, these women nevertheless played a critical role in research at Langley, back when the computers wore skirts.
Contributor: Sarah McLennan, William and Mary, 2011.
Manometer Board in Full Scale Tunnel
Manometer Board in Low Turbulence Tunnel (LTT), September 30, 1946
Computer with Friden machine
Anne Wythe Hall (courtesy Mary Caroline Boerner, http://www.oldewythehistory.com/photo_gallery/businessandplaces.php)
This group of photographs was donated by Beverly Golemba.
L-R: Dorothy Vaughan, Leslie Hunter, Vivian Adair (Margaret Ridenhour and Charlotte Craidon in back)
[top] Group Photos
Click on the photos for names
[top] Retirements and Other Social Events
[top] The Women: 1935 - 1960s
This list includes women who began their careers at Langley as computers (many moved into other positions later) or worked as a computer at one time. Also included is any information available on locations and dates of work at Langley. Some of the tunnels kept logs of the personnel with dates, names, action, number of people in the office, and sometimes additional information on marriages and resignations. For example, see 8-Foot Computing Office. (* denotes women interviewed by Sarah McLennan)
Agnes Harris Tilghman- 1946
Helen H. Willey-1941-1973
Marjorie Blum Gentry- 1946
Mary Alice Eastwood Woerner
[top] Films and Interviews
When Computers Were Human, Computer History Museum
Women Computers 1990 Panel Discussion
When Computers Were Humans, James Hansen Interview with Vera Huckle, Helen Willey, and Marie Burcher
[top] Further Reading
Human Computers: The Women in Aeronautical Research Golemba, Beverly E. Unpublished.
50 Years: Flying High in a Man's World. Daily Press. 1992.
Kathryn Johnson in A Look Back wuth Langley's NACA Alumni: NACA's 95th Anniversary. Researcher News. March 3, 2010.
1943 LMAL Bulletin Various articles throughout the year on the new dorms being built in Hampton
When the Computer Whote a Skirt: Langley's Computers, 1935-1970. McLennan, Sarah and Mary Gainer. News & Notes. Vol 29, No 1. 2012.
- ↑ Katherine Johnson, quoted in Jim Hodges “She Was a Computer When Computers Wore Skirts” Langley Researcher News, August 8, 2008.
- ↑ Information on Tucker is drawn from a profile in the Langley newsletter: Virginia Tucker, “What’s my Name?” Air Scoop June 14, 1946.
- ↑ For more information on this history, see David Alan Grier, When Computers were Human, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.
- ↑ R.H. Cramer to R.A. Darby, "Computing Groups Organization and Practice at NACA” April 27, 1942.
- ↑ James Schultz, Winds of Change: Expanding the Frontiers of Flight- Langley Research Center's 75 years of accomplishment 1917-1992, Washington, DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1992, 47. “LMAL Personnel Total Exceeds 2000” LMAL Bulletin June 16, 1943.
- ↑ Author’s interview with Elizabeth Kitrell Taylor, June 8, 2011. Information on Huckel and Willey drawn from their video interview with James Hansen “From the Slide Rule to the Super Computer: An Oral History of Aerospace Computing at Langley,” filmed 1990.
- ↑ United States War Department, Office of the Chief of Engineers, “Work of the Engineer Department” August 1, 1940, 3.
- ↑ War Department, “Work of the Engineer,” 2. For more accounts of hiring practices see Beverly Golemba, Human Computers: The Women in Aeronautical Research, unpublished manuscript 1994, NASA Langley Archives, 42-78 and “Panel Discussion with Women Computers” NASA Langley videotape, December 13, 1990.
- ↑ Cramer to Darby, “Computing Groups Organization” April 27, 1942, 2.
- ↑ “Panel Discussion with Women Computers” NASA Langley videotape, December 13, 1990 and Author’s interview with Marilyn Heyson, April 8, 2011.
- ↑ Golemba, 42-44. Along with Golemba’s manuscript, “Panel Discussion with Women Computers” NASA Langley videotape, December 13, 1990 contains interviews with early African-American computers.
- ↑ President Truman issued Executive Order 9981 to desegregate the armed forces July 26, 1948.
- ↑ Golemba, 18.
- ↑ Hodges “She Was a Computer When Computers Wore Skirts” Langley Researcher News, August 8, 2008.
- ↑ For more specific information on computing techniques and work, see Sheryll Goecke Powers, Women in Flight Research at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center from 1946-1995. Monographs in Aerospace History No. 6, NASA History Office, 1997, and Golemba, Human Computers.
- ↑ Author’s interview with Margaret Hurt, May 11, 2011.
- ↑ “Computers Help Compile Handbook” Air Scoop August 17, 1951 and Golemba, 65.
- ↑ Derrick Henry, “Sara Bullock, early NASA mathematician” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 25, 2003, D7 and “Announce New Research Device,” Air Scoop March 28, 1947.
- ↑ Author and Antony Clemon’s interview with Dr. Christine Darden, April 1, 2011.