To talk about Dorothy Vaughn, we have to go back to the time of flesh and blood computers. Yes, amazingly something that started by doing calculations by hand ended up launching rockets and astronauts into space.
Vaughan started as a computer in the segregated West Area Computing unit for black women at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor to NASA. Soon enough, she became the first African American with a supervisor position in NACA’s history and what was meant to be a temporary job, for the duration of the war, became a 28-year career.
One step ahead
After Sputnik 1 was launched, USA had a new non-military target: beat the Russians in the space race. Thus, in 1958 NACA became NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration).
Back then, Vaughan realised that with the forthcoming arrival of machine computing the need for human computers would be less and less required. To keep pace, she became an expert FORTRAN programmer while sneaking into computing books that weren’t accessible for African Americans.
Vaughan later taught other computer women plus collaborated to write the handbook detailing the algebraic methods used by the calculating machines. At the end, when the shift to machine computers was made, Vaughan and her colleagues were all set to assume new roles as computer programmers.
To mention a little bit more about FORTRAN, this was the first higher level language to be widely used, developed for the 704 IBM machine known as “electronic calculator”, that featured built-in floating point and indexing capabilities. Today, it is practically not used outside scientific fields and high performance numerical computing applications, but it has been the basis for many other programming languages such as BASIC.
Back to rocket science, remarkable space innovations took part while Vaughn was at NASA. Dorothy and the Western computers played a significant role in developing one of NASA’s most reliable launch vehicles of all time, the Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test system (SCOUT), capable of sending a 175kg satellite into orbit. Vaughan also assited the calculations of flight trajectories for Project Mercury, the first human spaceflight program of the United States, responsible for the first American orbiting the earth (John Glenn) and Apollo 11 mission to the moon. She recalled that working at the Langley Base during the Space Age felt like being on “the cutting edge of something very exciting”.
Leadership and collaboration
Despite the discriminatory institutional barriers both by gender and race, Dorothy campaigned for something especially important, teamwork. African American women needed to be “twice as good to get half as far” as Dorothy recalls. So, they would explain and correct each other’s work and stayed long hours after labour as to improve together, because “any upward movement is movement for us all” like the character of Vaughn exclaims in the movie Hidden Figures. Her strength and integrity certainly smoothed the way for many other women to get into space and aeronautics.
“I changed what I could, and what I couldn’t, I endured.”
When you read about Dorothy Vaughan’s life you just can’t believe the unfairness of her long-standing invisibility. The world knew such an incredible mathematician had been part of setting satellites into space and putting a man in the moon for the first time only 55 years after, when the book and the film Hidden Figures were released. Although many of her accomplishments still remain untold or difficult to uncover, stories like Dorothy’s, Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson, the other two women of the iconic trio, show us that the dominant historical records have finally started to be amended.
Advent Calendar — Help us make it a book!
From December 1st until December 24th we plan to release one article each day, highlighting the life of one of the many women that have made today’s computing industry as amazing as it is: From early compilers to computer games, from chip design to distributed systems, we will revisit the lives of these pioneers.
Each article will come with an amazing illustration by @SebastianNavasF.
If you want to see these series to become a book with expanded articles and even more illustrations by Sebastián, then subscribe to our newsletter below.
- Illustration: Sebastián Navas
- Light, Jennifer S. 1999. When computers were women. Technology and culture. 40.3: 455–483.
- Sammet, Jean E. 1972. Programming Languages: History and Future. CACM.
- Allen, Frances E. 1982. A technological review of the FORTRAN I compiler. National computer conference. ACM, 1982. p. 805–809.
- Scout Launch Vehicle Program — NASA (https://www.nasa.gov/centers/langley/news/factsheets/Scout.html)
- Biography by Margot Lee Shetterly — NASA (https://www.nasa.gov/content/dorothy-vaughan-biography)