• Ananya Misra

From Housewives to ‘Computers’- the story of NASA’s wonder women.

Back in the 1950’s ‘computers’ wore skirts and high heels! Yes, literally!

In the times of World War 2, humans who were recruited specifically for doing mathematical calculations and analysis were called ‘computers’. It was quite ordinary to come across ads in newspapers seeking to hire computers. Due to the shortage of men, most of whom were made to join the Army during the War, NASA took it upon itself to start hiring women science grads as ‘computers’.

It all started in 1935 with the hiring of a high school teacher with a graduation degree in Maths by the name of Virginia Tucker. She joined 4 other women to make up NASA’s first batch of human computers.

Soon within the next 30 years, hundreds of women were recruited for the same post. They were relied upon to analyze and calculate an astounding amount of data related to NASA’s aeronautical and space research programs. These women played a major role in almost all of the space milestones created by the American government agency throughout the early years of its establishment.

However, the remuneration these women got was barely enough. In the pre-computer era, human computing was seen as a sub-professional job and junior computers started at an annual pay ranging from 1400 $ (for Junior Computers) to $3200 (for Chief Computers). Ironically, men with similar qualifications were hired as ‘engineers’, a ‘professional’ job category, at annual pay of $2600. But despite the low pay, an increasing number of women started applying for this position. This was in part because women those days, had very limited job opportunities in the field of science and engineering. Most working women had to be satisfied with being either a nurse, a high school teacher or a secretary with pay as little as $500 a year. Naturally, for academically bright and ambitious young women, a chance to work for NASA and play a substantial part in some of the ground-breaking space research projects at a pay reasonably higher than the average given to women, proved to be quite an attractive career choice.

The work culture here also played a significant role in encouraging women to come forth from their sheltered lives. NASA was probably one of the first organizations in the US to allow flexible working hours for mothers and wives. They also built a nursery with round-the-clock childcare facilities and all women hostels for the female computers. Also, women who took sabbaticals for motherhood were duly called up and coaxed to return to their work, post their maternity leave, by their female supervisors.

These women computers played with numbers and complex mathematical formulae daily and devised new scientific techniques involving major projects in Word War 2 aircraft testing, supersonic flight research, and space exploratory programs. A number of these women went on to author and co-author books on interpreting research data. Helen Willey edited a Handbook for Data Reduction in the Eight Foot Transonic Tunnel. Many of these women were married to men who worked as engineers at NASA. Naturally, the men took the help of their mathematically gifted spouses while authoring books and research reports on the advanced work being done. Many of these women thus ended up being co-authors of such groundbreaking scientific publications- a huge step forward for women of those times in the largely male-dominated field of science and engineering.

Post the advent of electronic computers, these human computers switched over to programming for the machines. The Bell Electronic Computer, which was bought by NASA in 1947, was run by a group of programmers lead by a female, Sara Bullock. Men, at that time, were not very convinced about electronic computers, given their lack of reliability, huge, unwieldy structure and several technical shortcomings. So even well into the 1960s, people at NASA largely relied on pen and paper to do their mathematics. Naturally, with men taking a back seat, women became more involved with these machines and became some of the first programmers of that generation.

What is remarkable is the significant role that these American women played in the world’s foremost space research programs at a time when their counterparts across the country and beyond were primarily confined to being wives and mothers with little or no exposure to science and academics. Not just that, these women managed to have a flourishing domestic life as well despite their demanding careers. So they got married and raised children while working 8-10 hours crunching numbers and helping create America’s multibillion-dollar, cutting edge space research programs! Which is frankly, quite a stupendous feat, even compared to current times. Studies show, that in the 1980s some 37 per cent of computer science degrees were being awarded to women in the US, whereas today that number has dwindled to just 18 per cent!

We need to encourage more women to take up advanced degrees in science and engineering. We need to break the deep-rooted myth that boys are better at maths than girls. For as history shows, women are no less than men when it comes to having mathematical acumen. If they haven’t been able to make as much of a mark in the field as their male counterparts, it is due in large measure to rampant sexual discrimination, deep-set social stigmas surrounding women taking up science and lack of sufficient encouragement from a patriarchal society that still forces women to give up their careers to get married and raise kids. It is only with the collective efforts of parents, teachers, and society as a whole, that we can strive to break the glass ceiling and enhance women’s contribution to science.