Nasa space scientist and mathematician Katherine Johnson at Nasa Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia, 1980. Photo: Donaldson Collection/ Getty Images
I just assumed they were all secretaries, she said. Five white women joined Langleys first computing pond in 1935 and by 1946, 400 girls have since been trained as aeronautical foot soldier. Historian Beverly Golemba, in a 1994 study, estimated that Langley had applied several hundred girls as human computers. On the tail end of the research for Hidden Figures , I can now see how that number might top 1,000.
To a first-time author with no background as a historian, the stakes involved in writing about a topic that was virtually absent from the history books felt high. Im sensitive to the cognitive dissonance conjured by the phrase black female mathematicians at Nasa. From the beginning, I knew I would have to apply the same kind of analytical reasoning to my research that these women applied to theirs. Because as exciting as it was to discover name after name, finding out who they were was just the first step. The real challenge was to document the performance of their duties. Even more than the astonishingly large numbers of black and white women who had been hiding in a profession seen as universally white and male, the body of work they left behind was a revelation.
There was Dorothy Hoover, working for Robert T Jones in 1946 and publishing theoretical research on his famed triangle-shaped delta wings in 1951. There was Dorothy Vaughan, working with the white East Computers to write a textbook on algebraic methods for the mechanical calculating machines that were their constant companions.
There was Mary Jackson, defending her analysis against John Becker, one of the worlds top aerodynamicists. There was Katherine Johnson, describing the orbital trajectory of John Glenns flight, the maths in her trailblazing 1959 report as elegant, accurate and grand as a symphony. There was Marge Hannah, the white computer who served as the black women first boss, co-authoring a report with Sam Katzoff, who became the laboratorys chief scientist. There was Doris Cohen, defining the bar for them all with her first research report the NACAs first female writer back in 1941.
My investigation became more like an obsession; I would stroll any trail if it entailed find a trace of one of the computers at its objective. I was determined to prove their existence and their talent in such a way that entail they would never again be lost to history. As the photos, memos, equations and family narratives became real people, as the women became my companions and returned to youth or returned to life, I started to want something better for them than merely putting them on the record. What I wanted was for them to have the grand, sweeping narrative that they deserved. Not told as a separate history, but as a part of the narrative we all know.
Today, my hometown, the hamlet that in 1962 dubbed itself Spacetown USA, looks like any suburban city in a modern and hyperconnected America. People of all races and nationalities mingle on Hamptons beaches and in its bus stations, the whites only signs of the past now relegated to the history museum and the memories of survivors of the civil right revolution. Mercury Boulevard no longer conjures images of the eponymous mission that shot the first Americans beyond the ambiance and each day the memory of Virgil Grissom fades-out away from the bridge that bears his name. A downsized space programme and decades of government cutbacks have made the region hard; today, an ambitious college grad with a knack for numbers might define her sights on a gig at a Silicon Valley startup or make for one of the many technology firms that are conquering the Nasdaq from the Virginia suburbs outside of Washington DC.
But before a computer became an inanimate object, and before Mission Control landed in Houston; before Sputnik changed the course of history, and before the Naca became Nasa; before the supreme court case Brown v Board of Education of Topeka established that separate was in fact not equal, and before the poetry of Martin Luther King Jrs I have a dreaming speech rang out over the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Langleys West Computer were helping America dominate aeronautics, space research and computer technology, carving out a place for themselves as female mathematicians who were also black, black mathematicians who were also female. For a group of bright and ambitious African American females, diligently prepared for a mathematical career and eager for a fissure at the big leagues, Hampton, Virginia, must have felt like the centre of the universe.
This is an edited extract from Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, published by William Collins ( 8.99 ). To order a transcript for 7.64 going to see bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p& p over 10, online orders merely. Phone orders min p& p of 1.99