West Area Computers

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West Area Computing Unit
Other namesWest Computers, West Area Computers
OccupationNASA Mathematicians
Years active1943–1958

The West Computers (West Area Computing Unit, West Area Computers) were the African American, female mathematicians who worked as human computers at the Langley Research Center of NACA (predecessor of NASA) from 1943 through 1958. These women were a subset of the hundreds of female mathematicians who began careers in aeronautical research during World War II. To offset the loss of manpower as men joined the war effort, many U.S. organizations began hiring, and actively recruiting, more women and minorities during the 1940's. In 1935, the Langley Research Center had 5 female human computers on staff.[1] By 1946, the Langley Research Center had recruited about 400 female human computers.[1][2]

The West Computers were originally subject to Virginia's Jim Crow laws. Even though they did the same work as the white female human computers at Langley, the West Computers were required to use segregated work areas,[2] bathrooms, and cafeterias.[3] The West Computers were originally sequestered into the West Area of Langley, hence their nickname.[2] In 1958, when the NACA made the transition to NASA, segregated facilities, including the West Computing office, were abolished.[4]

The work of human computers at Langley varied. However, most of the work involved reading, analyzing, and plotting data.[1] The human computers did this work by hand. They would work one-on-one with engineers or in computing sections.[1] The computers played major roles in aircraft testing, supersonic flight research, and the space program.[1] Although the female human computers often held degrees and expertise equal to the male engineers at Langley, females were not hired on as engineers and were paid significantly less.[1]

According to an unpublished study by Beverly E. Golemba of Langley's early computers, a number of other women did not know about the West Computers.[5] That said, both the black and white women Golemba interviewed recalled that when computers from both groups were assigned to a project together, "everyone worked well together."[6][3][7]

Notable members[edit]

In 1949, Dorthy Vaughan was put in charge of supervising the West Computers. She was the first African American manager at NASA. Vaughan was a mathematician who worked at Langley from 1943 through her retirement in 1971.[4] Mathematician Katherine Johnson, who in 2015 was named a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, joined the West Area Computing group in 1953. She was subsequently reassigned to Langley's Flight Research Division, where she performed notable work including providing the trajectory analysis for astronaut John Glenn's MA-6 Project Mercury orbital spaceflight.[8] Mary Jackson also worked in the West Area Computing Unit,[9] and the work of all three women (Vaughan, Johnson, and Jackson) is featured in the 2016 film Hidden Figures.

Some of the West Computers engaged in small acts of protest against segregation at Langley. Miriam Mann repeatedly removed signs denoting where "coloured girls" could sit for their meals[2]. Katherine Johnson refused to use the segregated bathrooms and cafeterias. She ate at her desk and used an unmarked bathroom.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f "Human Computers".
  2. ^ a b c d e Zing, Tsjeng (2018). Forgotten Women: The Scientists. Cassell Illustrated. p. 191. ISBN 978-1-78840-042-8.
  3. ^ a b McLennan, Sarah (2011). "Human Computers". NASA Cultural Resources. Retrieved 6 February 2017.
  4. ^ a b Loff, Sarah (22 November 2016). "Dorothy Vaughan Biography". NASA. Retrieved 6 February 2017.
  5. ^ "Beverly E. Golemba Papers, MS 307, Archives of Women in Science and Engineering, Special Collections Department". Iowa State University Library. Retrieved 6 February 2017.
  6. ^ ""Panel Discussion with Women Computers" NASA Langley videotape". December 13, 1990.
  7. ^ Beverly Golemba, Human Computers: The Women in Aeronautical Research, unpublished manuscript 1994, NASA Langley Archives
  8. ^ "West Area Computers - Trailblazers in American Space History" (PDF). Center for the History of Physics at AIP. Summer 2014. Retrieved 6 February 2017.
  9. ^ Shetterly, Margot Lee (2016-09-06). Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. William Morrow. ISBN 9780062363596.