Tuesday, January 17, 2017

706 (2017 #4). Hidden Figures

by Margot Lee Shetterly

The movie based on this book was released a week before I went on a cruise, so I borrowed it to read.  It's an interesting nonfiction account of the human "computers," primarily female mathematicians, who took the formulas from the engineers, plugged in the data, and did the calculations in the early days of aeronautics.  Many of the computers  - even in Hampton, Virginia, home of the Langley Research Center - were black.

Like many industries, Langley first started employing women during World War II.  Its work ramped up as the home of NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.  That organization morphed into NASA as defense work slowed but the Space Race began in the late 1950s.

This nonfiction work focuses on the lives and careers of three black women - Dorothy Johnson VaughanKatherine Coleman Goble Johnson, and Mary Winston Jackson.  All three women started in the West Area Computing Unit (albeit at different times), a segregated work group. Other women are discussed in the book as well, and at times it becomes hard to keep track of them.

The women tell stories of a "Colored Computers" table in the lunchroom and separate bathrooms, common in a state that was one of the last to desegregate.  Margot Lee Shetterly, who grew up in the area with a Hampton University English professor mother and a NASA research scientist father who began working at Langley in the early 1960s, points out that America's discrimination at home did not sit well with the minority-dominated nations they were trying to win over from Soviet influence to democracy.

Shetterly provides end notes, a bibliography, and index, although unfortunately the e-book does not take advantage of linking technology with them.  I also would have liked to see some photographs of the women in the book.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[This e-book was borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

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