African American History Month, Computers in Skirts & More

Photo of Katherine C. Johnson in her youth at NASA
Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson • 1918-present

Katherine Johnson, research mathematician, NASAIn Margot Lee Shetterly's story, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, the main characters teach audiences about a little-known aspect of NASA's history. The story of Katherine G. Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer, and Mary Jackson, Janelle Monáe, in the movie Hidden Figures, highlights the contributions of brilliant African American women in the space race of the 1950s and beyond. It's an inspirational, feel-good biographical drama widely released in theaters on Jan. 6. Katherine Johnson, math savant, who provided many of the computations to safely guide the Friendship 7 flight of Astronaut John Glenn in 1962 is the only one of the female trio depicted in the movie who is still living.

Katherine Johnson, 2015 recipient of the Presidential Medal of FreedomPresident Barack Obama presented Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 at the White House. Her computations have influenced every major space program from Mercury through the Shuttle program. She was hired as a research mathematician at the Langley Research Center with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NACA, the agency that preceded NASA, after they opened hiring to African Americans and women. Johnson exhibited exceptional technical leadership and is known especially for her calculations of the 1961 trajectory for Alan Shepard’s flight, the first American in space, the 1962 verification of the first flight calculation made by an electronic computer for John Glenn’s orbit, the first American to orbit the earth, and the 1969 Apollo 11 trajectory to the moon. In her later NASA career, Johnson worked on the Space Shuttle program and the Earth Resources Satellite and encouraged students to pursue careers in science and technology fields.

Women depicted in the Hidden Figures movie and those who portrayed them.Also depicted in the move is Vaughan, 1910-2008, also a mathematician and expert FORTRAN programmer who worked at NACA; she was the first African-American woman to be promoted as a head of personnel at NACA. Jackson, 1921-2005, was NASA’s first African-American female engineer and author of Effects of Nose Angle and Mach Number on Transition on Cones at Supersonic Speeds in 1958.

She Was a Computer When Computers Wore Skirts by Jim Hodges, NASA Langley Research Center, originally published in 2008

Katherine Johnson was 90 on Aug. 26, 2008, an apt date because it also was National Equality Day.

Not that she ever thought she wasn't equal.

"I didn't have time for that," said Johnson in her Hampton, Va., home. "My dad taught us 'you are as good as anybody in this town, but you're no better.' I don't have a feeling of inferiority. Never had. I'm as good as anybody, but no better."

But probably a lot smarter. She was a "computer" at Langley Research Center "when the computer wore a skirt," said Johnson. More important, she was living out her life's goal, though, when it became her goal, she wasn't sure what it involved. Read more.

Other notables in history who probably need a movie too

Mark Dean • 1957-present

Mark DeanNotable inventions: ISA systems bus and 1GHz RISC processor chip

Dean designed the Industry Standard Architecture systems bus, a component that enables several machines like printers and modems to connect with a computer. Dean didn't stop there. He would also lead the design team behind the creation of the 1GHz RISC processor chip. Having occupied several big positions at IBM, he would become the first ever African-American to join IBM Fellow, which is the highest honor any scientist, engineer, or programmer can achieve at the company.

Kenneth J. Dunkley • 1939-present

Notable inventions: 3D glasses

Kenneth J. Dunkley, inventor of 3D glassesDunkley’s technique of blocking two points of a person’s peripheral vision resulted in people viewing images in the third-dimension. He also would be recognized as a pioneer in holography—the process of making holograms. This man was so ahead of his time. 

Dunkley came across a discovery while researching human vision; he had found that by blocking two points in a human’s peripheral vision, one could transform two-dimensional visuals into a three-dimensional space, creating a unique visual effect. He would file a patent in 1986 for “Three-Dimensional Viewing glasses” or “3-DVG.” Dunkley’s innovation would visualize 3D imagery from 2D without the aid of special lenses, mirrors or any optical effects. Dunkley also has conducted various visual experiments at the Museum of Scientific Discovery in Harrisburg, Pa., for four years. A leading man in the field of holography, he is the president of Holospace Laboratories Inc. in Camp Hill, Pa.

His work was a foundational catalyst in the way we use technology to view films today.

Henry T. Sampson Jr. • 1934-present

Notable inventions: Gamma-electric cell, binder system, and case-bounding system for propellants

Sampson’s gamma-electrical cell made it possible to wirelessly send and receive audio signals through radio waves. The nuclear physicist bears patents for inventions related to solid rocket motors as well. 

If you are interested in other pioneers of information or computing technology, please send in your suggestion for a story in a future issue of Benchmarks.