In 1949 Dorothy Johnson Vaughan became the first Black woman supervisor of the West Area Computers at the Langley Research Center. A trailblazer in her field, she was an American mathematician and human computer who worked for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), and NASA. Here’s more from NASA:
Dorothy Vaughan came to the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1943, during the height of World War II, leaving her position as the math teacher at Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, VA to take what she believed would be a temporary war job. Two years after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 into law, prohibiting racial, religious and ethnic discrimination in the country’s defense industry, the Laboratory began hiring black women to meet the skyrocketing demand for processing aeronautical research data. Urgency and twenty-four hour shifts prevailed– as did Jim Crow laws which required newly-hired “colored” mathematicians to work separately from their white female counterparts. Dorothy Vaughan was assigned to the segregated “West Area Computing” unit, an all-black group of female mathematicians, who were originally required to use separate dining and bathroom facilities. Over time, both individually and as a group, the West Computers distinguished themselves with contributions to virtually every area of research at Langley.
The group’s original section heads (first Margery Hannah, then Blanche Sponsler) were white. In 1949, Dorothy Vaughan was promoted to lead the group, making her the NACA’s first black supervisor, and one of the NACA’s few female supervisors. The Section Head title gave Dorothy rare Laboratory-wide visibility, and she collaborated with other well-known (white) computers like Vera Huckel and Sara Bullock on projects such as compiling a handbook for algebraic methods for calculating machines. Vaughan was a steadfast advocate for the women of West Computing, and even intervened on behalf of white computers in other groups who deserved promotions or pay raises. Engineers valued her recommendations as to the best “girls” for a particular project, and for challenging assignments they often requested that she personally handle the work.
Happy Ada Lovelace Day! Today, in honor of Ada Lovelace, the world celebrates all of the accomplishments of women in science, art, design, technology, engineering, and math. Each year, Adafruit highlights a number of women who are pioneering their fields and inspiring women of all ages to make their voices heard. Today we will be sharing the stories of women that we think are modern day “Adas” alongside historical women that have made impacts in science and math.
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