1940s Computer-Power

For International Women's Day, flashback to the early days of NASA. Fundamental research in aerodynamics using wind tunnels and the very earliest push into supersonic flight are piling up stacks of data. All that data went through computers, the women who performed data transcription and reduction.

Illustration for article titled 1940s Computer-Power

Computers of the NACA Muroc Flight Test Unit. Standing left to right: Mary (Tut) Hedgepeth, Lilly Ann Bajus, Roxanah Yancey, Emily Stephens, Jane Collons (Procurement), Leona Corbett (Personnel), and Angel Dunn. Kneeling left to right: Dorothy (Dottie) Crawford Roth, Dorothy Clift Hughes, and Gertrude (Trudy) Wilken Valentine.

This photo dates from the Dryden Flight Research Center, back when NASA was still NACA. These women translated oscillographs into numbers for analysis. After extracting, calculating, and reducing the data from aircraft instruments into a useable format, they handed it off to aerospace research engineers for analysis.


Not every day involved giant, grinning snowmen (or having staff BBQs). Most days, being a computer meant long days at a light-table trying to decipher grainy photographic film. Roxanah Yancey directed her team of computers, and was responsible for ensuring accurate calculations were made form the long strips of test flight data accumulated during research flights out of the station. As more and more tests were flown, a call went out to gather computers from Langley, Lewis, and Ames laboratories.

Illustration for article titled 1940s Computer-Power

From the left: Geraldine Mayer and Mary (Tut) Hedgepeth with Friden calculators on the their desks; Emily Stephens conferring with engineer John Mayer; Gertrude (Trudy) Valentine is working on an oscillograph recording reducing the data from a flight. Across the desk is Dorothy Clift Hughes using a slide rule to complete data calculations. Roxanah Yancey completes the picture as she fills out engineering requests for further data.


Why were computers almost exclusively women? Partly for the same reason Pickering hired them: they were far cheaper to employ than men. The caption at the NASA archive offers an alternate explanation, "at least part of the rationale seems to have been the notion that the work was long and tedious, and men were not thought to have the patience to do it." The women are bad at math idiocy is a recent occurrence: 1940s women were all about slide rules. Working as a computer in this pre-OSHA era meant long hours hunched over a light table, squinting at tiny images. The result was that most computers who didn't start out wearing glasses eventually ended up with them.


Without the NACA computers, developing air foils shaping wings and propellers couldn't have happened. Today I offer my thanks to Yancey and her team, some of the hidden women in the history of space flight.

Photographs and captions from the NASA/Dryden archives E49-0212 and E49-0053


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Corpore Metal

Back in the day when "computer" meant a human being, often a woman, who did enormous, often very tedious, sums, calculations and arithmetic, over and over again, to a high degree of reliability.

Sadly it was considered scut work, which was why it was often given to women to do. While the mostly male mathematicians, scientists and engineers thought lofty thoughts about the really interesting parts of mathematics that didn't involve specific calculations with specific numbers.

And yet these women quite literally made the early twentieth century possible. And it's good that they finally get some credit for their largely thankless work. And it's to these women we should silently point whenever some sexist chucklehead says women aren't good at STEM fields.