This Is Not A Computer

When you think of a computer, what do you envision? I see a clunky 90’s desktop with a big, CRT monitor.

Photo by Lorenzo Herrera on Unsplash

One of the most interesting things I learned watching Hidden Figures and reading Code Girls, was that the first computers were people. Many were women. A “computer” was someone who did mathematical calculations with pencil and paper, ” often taking more than a week to complete and filling up six to eight notebooks with data and formulas.”

Can you imagine having the job title “computer”?

I think it’s amazing how far we’ve come from a time not that long ago when performing computational work that affected “wing sections, propellers, and even whole airplanes” was considered women’s work. The beauty of science and math is that it doesn’t matter what the person who’s doing it looks like but how good they are at understanding the problem and figuring out the result.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t always the case at engineering labs like National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) which later became NASA. NACA was segregated like we saw in the the movie Hidden Figures. Working as a “Computer” paid better than a school teacher (the majority of women previous professions) but it was not classified the same as an engineer.

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).

via NASA Cultural Resources

In the late 1930’s at California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Barbara Canright was hired as the first woman computer. Macie Roberts was another computer at JPL. “When tasked with building out her team, she made the decision to hire only women, believing men would undermine the cohesion of the group and not take direction well from a woman.” This set a precedent “for future female supervisors who made it their job to hire women.”

When electric computers were invented and brought to JPL, the male engineers gave the IBMs to the women computers, “dismissing computer programming as “women’s work,”. This gave the women the opportunity to work with the computers and learn to code.

Women “Computers” in History


If you watched or read Hidden Figures, you’re probably familiar with Katherine JohnsonDorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. Here’s a brief list of other women who held the title “computer”.

Edith Clarke worked as a computer and “became the first professionally employed female electrical engineer in the United States in 1922.” She was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2015.

Barbara Paulson worked at California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She calculated rocket paths. Paulson plotted data from the satellite, JPL-built Explorer 1, that launched on January 31, 1958.

Virginia Tucker was “a former high school teacher with a college degree in mathematics.” Tucker was hired at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical
Laboratory in 1935 along with four other women. By 1946 Tucker was promoted to Overall Supervisor for Computing and “trained about 400 women and placed them in computing sections across the facility.”

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