As I See It: The Girl Who Liked to Count Things
September 19, 2016 Victor Rozek
She was born nearly a century ago in a little town in West Virginia with the unappealing name of White Sulphur Springs. There, the well-healed gathered to escape the summer heat and soak away their ailments at a resort that employed her father. She would not have been welcome there as a guest, however. She is black.
At the time, educational opportunities for black children in her county–those who could even contemplate such lavishness–ended with eighth grade. So her parents were forced to find a high school she would be permitted to attend, the nearest being about 120 miles away. She showed a hunger and an aptitude for learning and it would not be an exaggeration to say she did unusually well in high school, given that she started the curriculum at age 10, and graduated by 14.
From an early age, she had an affinity for math. Many years later she would say: “I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed . . . anything that could be counted, I did.”
At 15, she enrolled at West Virginia State College. There, she found mentors who would introduce her to the complex world of mathematics, including only the third African American to receive a PhD in math, W.W. Schiefflin Claytor.
She quickly exhausted all the math classes available at the college and Claytor, recognizing the divine spark of a superior intellect, developed advanced classes specifically for her. Again, she excelled, graduating summa cum laude in 1937 at the age of 18. Oh, and as if mathematics by itself wasn’t challenging enough, she graduated with a second degree in French.
After graduation she moved to Virginia to teach grammar school, and may have lingered there, her career mired in restricted opportunity, but the tide of history intervened. The intercession came in the form of a United States Supreme Court ruling, Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, which held that if states provided schooling for white students, they also had the responsibility to provide in-state education for blacks.
Which is how she became the first female to integrate the graduate program at West Virginia University. Her interest in mathematical research, however, found little opportunity for expression. It was a male-dominated field, and the occasional female who ventured into the realm of higher math would not only be required to have proper credentials, but proper skin color as well.
Again, history intervened, this time in the form of less-discriminatory hiring practices initiated by a government-sponsored consulting group called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. NACA would later morph into the agency that is arguably responsible for the greatest achievement in human history: Landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.
That agency, of course, would eventually become NASA. But back in 1953–inspired, no doubt, by the essential wartime contributions of women working to decipher German codes at Bletchley Park–NACA was hiring women to staff its Guidance and Navigation Department. At a time when computers were in their infancy, and about as portable as a housing project, women were employed to mimic the function for which calculating machines were named: they were hired to compute. In fact, the women who performed these mathematical calculations were known as “computors,” or, as she came to call her colleagues, “computers who wore skirts.”
However, in her case, that was not fully accurate. African Americans who held these positions were known as “colored computers,” and although the workplace was integrated in terms of hiring, it remained segregated in terms of access and interaction. “Colored computers” worked, ate, and peed separately.
In 1958 NASA was formed, the segregated workplace was abolished and isolated pools of mathematicians were dispersed throughout the agency. For the next 25 years, she forged a brilliant career in aerospace technology. Her name, virtually unknown to the American public, is Katherine Johnson, and it is only slightly hyperbolic to suggest the space program would not have achieved the same measure of success without her.
When America sent its first man into space, the trajectory followed by Alan Shepard’s spacecraft was calculated by Johnson. She also calculated launch windows–vital for missions that required linking-up with other space vehicles–as well as navigational charts designed to guide the safe return of astronauts in case of equipment failure. Such was her reputation for accuracy that the woman hired to be a “computor” would become more trusted than the computers designed to automate space flight.
In 1962, John Glenn was scheduled to launch into orbit around the Earth, the first American ever to do so. For the first time, NASA proposed to use computers to calculate the orbits. Glenn was less than enthused by that prospect. As a test pilot, he was accustomed to controlling machines, not having them control him. Discussions ensued aimed at easing his concerns, but Glenn adamantly refused to fly unless the computer’s data could be verified. And not just by anyone. Glenn insisted that the numbers be substantiated by Katherine Johnson.
She continued working on assorted missions, including helping to plot the emergency safe return of Apollo 13 astronauts after their moon shot was aborted. She even worked on plans for the archetypal mission to Mars before retiring in 1986.
Her career, according to NASA, is “littered with honors.” Accolades and awards are numerous and include a flag that journeyed in the first spacecraft to reach the surface of the moon, Apollo 11. As a final measure of her country’s gratitude, at age 98, Katherine Johnson, the little girl who liked to count things, born nearly a century ago in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor–the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
Fittingly, she is also poised to be honored by what is probably the highest civilian honor that can be bestowed by the popular culture: Hollywood is producing a movie about her life. For the largely vacuous movie industry, it is a rare tribute to enduring intelligence, and it is scheduled for release sometime next year.
I, for one, plan to see it.