Shetterly, founder of the Human Computer Project, passionately brings to light the important and little-known story of the black women mathematicians hired to work as computers at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Va., part of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NASA's precursor). The first women NACA brought on took advantage of a WWII opportunity to work in a segregated section of Langley, doing the calculations necessary to support the projects of white male engineers. Shetterly writes of these women as core contributors to American success in the midst of a cultural "collision between race, gender, science, and war," teasing out how the personal and professional are intimately related. She celebrates the skills of mathematicians such as Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Hoover, whose brilliant work eventually earned them slow advancement but never equal footing. Shetterly collects much of her material directly from those who were there, using personal anecdotes to illuminate the larger forces at play. Exploring the intimate relationships among blackness, womanhood, and 20th-century American technological development, Shetterly crafts a narrative that is crucial to understanding subsequent movements for civil rights. A star-studded feature film based on Shetterly's book is due out in late 2016. (Sept.)
Meticulous… the depth and detail that are the book’s strength make it an effective, fact-based rudder with which would-be scientists and their allies can stabilize their flights of fancy. This hardworking, earnest book is the perfect foil for the glamour still to come.
Much as Tom Wolfe did in “The Right Stuff”, Shetterly moves gracefully between the women’s lives and the broader sweep of history . . . Shetterly, who grew up in Hampton, blends impressive research with an enormous amount of heart in telling these stories
Restoring the truth about individuals who were at once black, women and astounding mathematicians, in a world that was constructed to stymie them at every step, is no easy task. Shetterly does it with the depth and detail of a skilled historian and the narrative aplomb of a masterful storyteller.
In this debut, Shetterly shines a much-needed light on the bright, talented, and wholly underappreciated geniuses of the institution that would become NASA. Called upon during the labor shortage of World War II, these women were asked to serve their country and put their previously overlooked skills to work—all while being segregated from their white coworkers. The author tells the compelling stories of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden as they navigated mathematical equations, the space race, and the civil rights movement over three decades of brilliant computing and discoveries. The professional and private lives of the ladies of Langley Research Center are documented through an impassioned and clearly well-researched narrative. Readers will learn how integral these women were to American aeronautics and be saddened by the racism and sexism that kept them from deserved recognition. VERDICT Shetterly's highly recommended work offers up a crucial history that had previously and unforgivably been lost. We'd do well to put this book into the hands of young women who have long since been told that there's no room for them at the scientific table. [See Prepub Alert, 3/21/16; "Editors' Fall Picks," p. 27.]—Kate DiGirolomo, Library Journal
In popular culture, Rosie the Riveter symbolized the thousands of women who worked assembly line jobs during World War II; her image lives on as an iconic poster for women's rights. Shetterly tells a companion story: starting in 1945, about 50 college-educated African American female mathematicians were among the approximately 1,000 women quietly hired by Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory as entry-level "computers"— their job title before the actual machine was invented. The author focuses on four black women who worked alongside engineers—that more prestigious title went to white men—to run tests, produce calculations, and tweak theories, pushing America into the modern aviation age. Their work ethic, smarts, and loyalty also gave them something else: earning power. Proudly securing a place in the middle class for their families, they could afford their own homes and college educations for their children. In exchange, they agreed to fit in—enduring, for example, the daily humiliation of the company's segregated cafeteria. Even the few who simply ate at their desks agreed, implicitly, to keep politics out of the workplace. As an insider, Shetterly, whose father was an African American career scientist at Langley, pieces this history together lovingly and carefully, with more than 250 footnotes. Now a mainstream movie, this is an inspiring account that is not so much hidden as it is untold. VERDICT Spotlighting pioneering black women who made their mark as mathematicians during segregation, this is a must for history collections.—Georgia Christgau, Middle College High School, Long Island City, NY
An inside look at the World War II–era black female mathematicians who assisted greatly in the United States’ aeronautics industry.Shetterly’s father, a 40-year veteran of what became Langley Research Center, used to tell her the stories of the black female “computers” who were hired in 1943 to work in the computing pool. The first female computing pool, begun in the mid-1930s, had caused an uproar; the men in the lab couldn’t believe a female mind could process the rigorous math and work the expensive calculating machine. In 1941, Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, desegregating the defense industry and paving the way for Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and others to begin work in 1943. The author never fully explains what machine they were using, but it was likely more advanced than the comptometer. What is perfectly clear is that the women who were hired were crack mathematicians, either already holding master’s degrees or destined to gain one. It was hard enough to be a woman in the industry at that time, but the black women who worked at Langley also had to be strong, sharp, and sufficiently self-possessed to be able to question their superiors—and that is just what they did. They sought information, offered suggestions, caught errors, and authored research reports. The stories are amazing not because the women were extremely smart, but because they fought for and won recognition and devotedly supported each other’s work. Their work outside the office—as Scout leaders, public speakers, and leaders of seminars to promote science and engineering—was even more impressive. They were there from the beginning, perfecting World War II planes and proving to be invaluable to the nascent space program. Much of the work will be confusing to the mathematically disinclined, but their story is inspiring and enlightening.