The Last of the Computers

One of the first hires at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, before JPL became a NASA facility and even before it had the name JPL, was Barbara Canright. Canright was employed as a “computer” who would do complicated and repetitive mathematics for JPL’s engineers, as were many women who followed in her footsteps at JPL.

From the nineteenth century until the 1960s, many large-scale scientific and engineering project relied on human computers – often female university graduates without the same employment opportunities as their male counterparts – to handle the computational load. As Nathalia Holt explains in her recent book Rise of the Rocket Girls, JPL was no different. Holt’s book describes the careers of computers at JPL from the 1940s to the present: one of the last computers to be hired, Susan Finley, still works at the laboratory.

The book does an excellent job narrating the personal trials and professional triumphs of these women, including the disappearance of computing by hand. By the time JPL acquired its name in 1943, multi-purpose electronic computers were only a matter of years away. In the 1950s, JPL’s computing department acquired the first of many IBM mainframes to do calculation work. “Cora” (for Core Storage) was given a woman’s name to fit into the all-female group. Many of the women who worked with it soon branched out into programming in FORTRAN and other languages, at a time when programming had little or none of the prestige which it would later acquire. That decision helped them carve out a niche which survived when hand calculation was eliminated as a trade by the electronic computers, leading to the computer department being renamed Mission Design and the women who had worked there eventually retitled as engineers. Rise of the Rocket Girls describes their ongoing contributions to a list of JPL space probes that includes Ranger, Mariner, Viking, and Voyager.

It’s an interesting story not least because the female calculators employed at JPL were among the last in the business. Their success in transitioning into the Computer Age, reflected both in their success as individuals and in the establishment of Mission Design, was loaded with assumptions about how the aerospace industry valued various kinds of work. Though Holt doesn’t linger on them, in a lot of ways the undercurrents in Rise of the Rocket Girls reminded me of Rebecca Slayton’s Arguments that Count, which examined the relative influence of physicists and computer scientists in planning for ballistic missile defense during the same era.

 

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