Exploring NASA's 'Human Computers'

Katherine Johnson Langley

The exhibit "When the Computer Wore a Skirt: NASA's Human Computers," explores the local history and personalities of the hit film "Hidden Figures."

In 1935, a group of five women came to Langley to form a computer pool to process all the data coming in from wind tunnel and flight tests. It began as an experiment, but became something much bigger.

By 1942, the human computers had become essential to operations. A memo that April stated: "The engineers admit themselves that the girl computers do the work more rapidly and accurately than they could."

In the 1940's Langley also began recruiting African-American women as human computers, but due to segregation laws these "West Area Computers" were kept separate from their white counterparts. This changed in the 1950s as NACA (later NASA) integrated and the "human computers" extended into the broader scientific community at NASA. By the 1960s they numbered in the hundreds. This exhibit features three of these pioneers: Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson (photo, above), and Hampton native Mary Jackson.

Created by the Hampton History Museum staff, the display is designed to travel to other museums, libraries, schools and other organizations. For details on borrowing "Human Computers," email curator Allen Hoilman or call  757/727-6875.