Can you imagine what it must have been like for these women in the early 1960’s? They had two strikes against them before they could even begin to count in society: their colour and their sex.
Even though they were smart, bordering on genius, the system was stacked against them. Their strength was in their ability to adapt to changes and in some instances to make those changes happen for others.
When I first saw these words on the door of their basement office, I thought they were referring to machines, like the iMacs of yesteryear.
But I was wrong: the term “computers” was referring to the women who did the calculations using pencil and paper, and machines. The “colored” referred to anyone who was not white.
The Women Behind the Scenes
There is a saying that states that ‘behind every successful man there is a woman’… I believe this to be true. As far as the Space Race was concerned, NASA had quite a few women.
It’s just that we never saw photographic evidence of this, while it was happening. Now, in the last few months, there have been two productions highlighting Katherine Johnson’s contribution to the work that they did: this film and an episode of “Timeless”.
IBM Punch Cards
I studied computer programming in the fall of 1969 with the Electronic Computer Programming Institute (ECPI) in Toronto. As far as I know, it no longer exists. But it served as a primer for understanding how computers were going to change the world. What you see above is an IBM 026 Key Punch which demonstrates how to read the holes in the card.
We no longer have to use these cards to communicate with computers, but the idea that our symbols have to be ‘encoded’ into something a computer can understand should alert us to the power of numbers in the binary world.
These are the ‘real’ hidden figures of the computer age.
Hidden Figures courtesy of google.com
iMacs courtesy of apple.com
Human Computers courtesy of history.com
IBM 026 Key Punch courtesy of IBM.com