Thanks to the book and film Hidden Figures, many people are increasingly aware of the significant contributions that women made to the nation’s space program and national defense during World War II and the Cold War. However, it is less well-known that women from North Carolina were well-represented among these “human computers” and fewer still under-stand that more than a dozen Meredith College alumnae contributed to these vital national efforts.
In part, this less understood truth is a reflection of the professional modesty that these gifted mathematicians brought to their work. Beverly Golemba, one of the first to write about human computers, noted this general characteristic in describing the challenges of uncovering this important story. According to Golemba, “While all of them report realizing they were doing pioneer work that was critical, especially during the war years and into the Space Age, all were reluctant to take what they felt was undue credit for their contribution.”1
This spring, students enrolled in the Introduction to Public History course hope to change this quiet legacy by bringing these impressive women to the attention of the public. Public History students will conduct research to identify Meredith alumnae and other women from North Carolina who worked in these fields and then complete a formal proposal for their contributions to be recognized on a state highway historical marker.
Women as Human Computers
Well before the current digital age, the federal government hired hundreds of women as “human computers” to complete mathematical calculations for programs crucial to the national security interests of the United States. According to NASA, computers were responsible for “Reading, calculating and plotting data from tests in Langley’s wind tunnels and research divisions [and]…played an integral role in both aeronautical and aerospace research at the lab…helping it keep pace with the high output demanded by World War II and the early space race.”2
The human computer program began in 1935 and lasted until the 1970s with Meredith alumnae serving in a variety of positions throughout these years. Many of the North Carolinians hired as computers were recruited by fellow Tar Heel Virginia Tucker, a graduate of the North Carolina College for Women (now UNCG), who by 1946 had risen to become the Overall Supervisor for Computing for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the agency that preceded the establishment of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Tucker traveled throughout the South recruiting gifted female mathematics students on college and university campuses. She and other recruiters who followed her found North Carolina with its many high caliber colleges to be a productive recruiting ground for these talented women. Meredith College contributed a significant number of its “Math Brains,” as they were referred to in The Meredith Herald, to these important national initiatives. The power of a women’s college education is evident as employment records reveal that Meredith College alumnae were joined in this work by graduates of the North Carolina College for Women, The Women’s College of Duke University, and Salem College as well as other single sex institutions from across the nation.
Breaking Ground in New Fields
Meredith graduates served as computers, aerospace technologists, and computer programmers for NACA, NASA, the Naval Weapons Laboratory, and the Aeronautical Testing Laboratory at Langley and Dahlgren Airfields in Virginia as well as at the US Navy Surface Warfare Center at Panama City, Florida. With starting salaries of $1,440 a year for Junior Computers to $3,200 a year for Chief Computers, these positions provided women with substantially higher compensation than they could have earned in most professions that were open to women at that time.3 In comparison, Meredith alumna Rowena Becker Daniel, ’42, accepted a position at Langley in 1942 after earning only $550 a year as a teacher in North Carolina.
The increased salary levels and the fact that computers were allowed to continue working after marriage and motherhood demonstrate that the importance of the work opened doors to highly skilled mathematicians regardless of an individual’s sex or race. While segregationist policies limited contact between white and black computers, alumna Janet Puckett Smith, ’62, expressed her admiration for the work of African American NASA computer operators whom she praised as “very professional and friendly.”4 Smith began her time at NASA working in the programming language Fortran as she collaborated with an engineering team that was tasked with “figuring out how to do lunar orbiting and docking.” Smith further recalled that NASA was “always shooting off weather balloons and rockets from Wallops Island. There was great excitement.”
Alumna Chris Forte, ’67, worked to develop “a Terminal Area Air Traffic Model (TAATM) which was used by NASA to test out digital air traffic displays in the cockpit and fuel saving approaches to an airport.”5 Margaret Leach Block, ’51, and Rowena Becker Daniel, two of the earliest Langley employees from Meredith, were both assigned to the 8 foot wind Tunnel where they worked on pressure distributions and high speed research that required computers to enter the tunnel “to take readings and work out formulas while tests were running.”6
Other Meredith “Math Brains” worked in defense research outside of NASA. Linda Motsinger Keiner, ’62, worked in a Biological & Chemical Warfare group where she recalled working as “part of a team to develop a mathematical model to illustrate damage inflicted by various BC [biological and chemical] agents through different delivery systems.”7 Working as a computer programmer and system engineer enabled Faye Autry Jackson, ’65, to contribute to the development of the Landing Craft Air Cushion hovercraft fleet which are used to “transport weapon systems, equipment, cargo, and personnel from ships to shore.”8
While these alumnae were often the only women working in their unit or had to dodge airplanes while crossing runways on their way home, the Meredith “Math Brains,” then and now, remember taking pride in their accomplishments. In the words of Linda Motsinger Keiner “we were all very excited to help the country.” Although these gifted mathematicians didn’t “count” on public praise, with the help of a new generation of Meredith scholars, their history-making efforts will soon be hidden no more.
Meredith Alumnae List
The following alumnae have been identified by Meredith researchers as having worked as computers or in related fields from the 1940s through the early 1960s.
Betty Lou Anderson, ’42; Langley
Rowena Daniel Becker, ’42; assistant computer, Langley
Margaret Leach Block, ’51; NACA 1951-56
Geraldine “Jerry” Couch, ’43; Langley
Jane Kathleen Simmons Edwards, ’61; Naval Weapons Laboratory, Dahlgren, VA
Christina Davis Forte, ’67; Research Triangle Institute & Langley Research Center
Elizabeth Garner, ’42; assistant computer, Langley
Faye Autry Jackson, ’65; US Navy Surface Warfare Center, Panama City, FL
Linda Motsinger Keiner, ’62; Mathematician Naval Weapons Laboratory, Dahlgren, VA
Janice Long, ’62; Aero Space Technologist, Langley
Jean Parrish Mason, ’52; computer, NACA
Mary Matthews, ’44; accountant, Langley
Mary Catherine Cole Metters, ’57; National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics
Wilma Owens ’57; Aeronautical Testing Laboratory, Langley
Ann Quay, ’57; Aeronautical Testing Laboratory, Langley
Harriette Ann Seals, ’59; mathematician, Langley
Mary Ann Canady Simms, ’42; assistant computer, Langley
Janet Puckett Smith, ’62; Aero Space Technologist, Langley
If you or someone you know from Meredith College worked in one of these fields, please let Professor Dan Fountain or the Meredith College Archives know about your experiences. Fountain can be reached at (919) 760-2825 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The Archives can be reached at (919) 760-8047 or email@example.com.
Course Explores Public History
Introduction to Public History exposes students to the theory and practice of the interpretation of history for public audiences. The course features hands-on learning assignments and introduces students to professionals working in the field through site visits, class discussions, and collaborative research projects. This longstanding course is part of the history program’s emphasis on career preparation and serves as the cornerstone of the Public History minor.
1 Beverly Golemba, “Human Computers: The Women in Aeronautical Research,” unpublished manuscript, ca. 1995, 10. http://crgis.ndc.nasa.gov/historic/File:Golemba.pdf.
4 Janet Smith email to Daniel L. Fountain, April 15, 2019.
5 Chris Forte email to Daniel L. Fountain, April 12, 2019.
7 Linda Motsinger Keiner Interview, (July 25, 2019), North Carolina Women’s Oral History Collection, Meredith College Archives.
8 Andrew Jackson email to Daniel L. Fountain, April 15, 2019.