Before computers were machines, they were women. At Nasa units like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, with paper, pencil and slide rule, they calculated the thrust-to-weight ratios that kept Dr Strangelove’s strategic bombers in the air, and plotted the trajectories that put landers on the moon. Their work helped the US to win the Cold War and the space race, but few got the recognition they deserved.
But the mathematician and physicist, Katherine Johnson, who has died aged 101, was honoured with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was a black woman, a prodigy who taught in school because, at the time, university campuses were racist. In 1953, she joined a team composed exclusively of black women at Nasa’s Langley facility.
Male-dominated at the time, computer technology inadvertently handed the advantage to women. In Alan Turing’s wartime project to crack the German Enigma code, women became pioneers by accident because male researchers considered working with masses of wires and switches as manual labour, fit for women. In US aerospace, 20 years later, men considered mental calculations to be more reliable than machines. So women were free to play with early IBMs, and numbered among the first programmers. Later, Margaret Hamilton of MIT wrote the code that landed Apollo 11 on the moon, on a stack of paper almost as tall as herself. And after doing the calculations that put Alan Shepard in space and John Glenn in orbit, Johnson had worked out the navigational charts which put Neil Armstrong down in Tranquillity Base. With her death, perhaps only one of the women computers of the Fifties remains — Susan G Finley, Nasa’s oldest serving woman. Involved with the Jupiter and Pluto missions, she has no retirement plans.
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