West Area Computers

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West Area Computing Unit
Nationality American
Other names West Area Computers
Occupation NASA Mathematicians
Years active 1943–1958

The West Area Computing Unit (West Area Computers) was an all-African American all-female group of mathematicians who worked as human computers at the Langley Research Center of NACA (predecessor of NASA) from 1943 through 1958. The group, a subset of the hundreds of female mathematicians who began careers in aeronautical research during World War II, was originally subject to Virginia's Jim Crow laws, requiring them to use segregated bathrooms and cafeterias.[1]

The Langley Research Center of NACA began recruiting African-American women with college degrees, to work as computers, during the 1940s. The West Area Computers's responsibilities included processing data, as well as joining other teams at NACA on a temporary basis as needed.[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According to an unpublished study by Beverly E. Golemba of Langley's early computers, a number of other women did not know about the West Computers.[2] That said, both the black and white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."[3][1][4]

Originally supervised by white women, in 1949 Dorothy Vaughan was put in charge, becoming NASA's first African-American manager. Vaughan was a mathematician who worked at Langley from 1943 through her retirement in 1971.[5]

In 1958, when the NACA made the transition to NASA, segregated facilities, including the West Computing office, were abolished.[5]

Notable members[edit]

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.[6] Mary Jackson also worked in the West Area Computing Unit,[7] and the work of all three women (Vaughan, Johnson, and Jackson) is featured in the 2016 film Hidden Figures.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c McLennan, Sarah (2011). "Human Computers". NASA Cultural Resources. Retrieved 6 February 2017. 
  2. ^ "Beverly E. Golemba Papers, MS 307, Archives of Women in Science and Engineering, Special Collections Department". Iowa State University Library. Retrieved 6 February 2017. 
  3. ^ ""Panel Discussion with Women Computers" NASA Langley videotape". December 13, 1990. 
  4. ^ Beverly Golemba, Human Computers: The Women in Aeronautical Research, unpublished manuscript 1994, NASA Langley Archives
  5. ^ a b Loff, Sarah (22 November 2016). "Dorothy Vaughan Biography". NASA. Retrieved 6 February 2017. 
  6. ^ "West Area Computers - Trailblazers in American Space History" (PDF). Center for the History of Physics at AIP. Summer 2014. Retrieved 6 February 2017. 
  7. ^ 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.