Dorothy Vaughan: A Story of Mathematics, Determination, and Intuition

Last Updated: August 24, 2017 9:00 am
Dorothy Vaughan: A Story of Mathematics, Determination, and Intuition

Dorothy Vaughan: A Story of Mathematics, Determination, and Intuition

Without programming, space travel simply wouldn’t be possible. What many people don’t know is that women were some of the first computer programmers! To kick off our series of blog articles featuring women in STEM, we’re taking a look at Dorothy Vaughan and her early navigation of the field of computer programming.

Throughout her life, Dorothy Vaughan (whose name you may recognize if you’ve watched or read Hidden Figures) was a gifted and hard-working mathematician. Among her accomplishments are a mathematics research position at Howard University, a degree in education, a job at the Bernis Laboratory in the Hampton Institute, and, of course, her work with NASA. On her application to the laboratory job in 1943, she famously indicated on her application that she’d be ready to work “within 48 hours,” and she got the position. Dorothy’s rise in the field of engineering is particularly impressive considering the widespread racial discrimination present in the United States at the time, as well as the male-dominated nature of her workplace.

Dorothy soon began working in the segregated “West Area Computing” unit at Langley, where she and other African-American women performed calculations used by engineers at NACA, the organization that later became NASA. Dorothy was promoted to temporary supervisor (a position she held for years before being officially granted the role) after the head of West Computing died, making her the first black supervisor and one of the first female supervisors at NACA. During her time at NACA, the IBM really came to fruition. An IBM Card Programmed Calculator was the first IBM computer used in the space program, initially used to develop missiles and track the Soviet Union’s progress with Sputnik. Programmers communicated with the IBM using a revolutionary programming language, FORTRAN.

Dorothy quickly recognized the potential of this new technology and was determined to learn to operate it. Following in the footsteps of other brilliant female programmers, she devoted herself to learning the language. Soon, she was considered an expert in FORTRAN and fluently communicated with the computer. Armed with the intuition to know that this machine would become the future, she helped the other women computer programmers learn to communicate with the IBM through the language of Fortran as well.

Dorothy Vaughan’s revolutionary career helped lay the groundwork for women across the country to excel in STEM fields. Without her intuition about the importance of digital computing, who knows where the field would be today? Teachers and parents who help their students and children learn to code are tackling programming with similar intuition. They’re recognizing the opportunity and need to learn code, and working to encourage the next generation to code. Whether you’re a teacher integrating coding into your curriculum or a parent encouraging Tynkering as an after-school activity, thank you for contributing to the future these young programmers are creating!

This article is part of a series on women in STEM – check our blog soon for the next one!

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