Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Female Computer

Annie Easley

As promised, here is some info on an interesting person you may never have heard of. I'll admit, most people might not be that interested in the accomplishments of Annie Easley. She wrote or contributed to such riveting works as Effect of Turbulent Mixing on Average Fuel Temperatures in a Gas-Core Nuclear Rocket Engine and Performance and Operational Economics Estimates for a Coal Gasification Combined-Cycle Cogeneration Powerplan. I don't think those have ever been on Oprah's Book Club. But if you are a fan of science or rockets or space or computers, then you should be glad for the contributions of Easley. 

What I like about her story is how she followed her interest and excelled simply by being really good at her job. She was pursuing pharmacy but ran out of options as far as education goes. So in 1955 she applied for a job as a computer. At that time complex math was still done by humans rather than machines and the NACA (predecessor to NASA) needed lots of computing power for the advanced research it was doing in aeronautics. So this southern Black lady with two years of college toward a pharmacy degree was given a government job doing math (for those lazy engineers, I guess). That was the start of a career that would have implications for the Space Race and the modern computer age!

I loved what she had to say when asked about being one of only a few minorities in the organization:

 I didn't feel like I'm a minority, I'm less. I just have my own attitude. I'm here to work. You may look at me, someone else may look at me, and see something different, but that's okay. But I'm out here to do a job and I knew I had the ability to do it, and that's where my focus was, on getting the job done. I was not intentionally trying to be a pioneer. I wanted a job, I wanted to work. But it was never a "poor me," though I know I'm not so unaware that I don't know what's going on around me. Remember my mom said, "You can do anything you want to, but you have to work at it," and that was part of it. With her strong teachings, I was able to do it.*
 And also:
When people have their biases and prejudices, yes, I am aware. My head is not in the sand. But my thing is, if I can't work with you, I will work around you. I was not about to be so discouraged that I'd walk away. That may be a solution for some people, but it's not mine. So yes, I'm sure, I, like many others, have been judged not on what I can do, but on what I look like. *
 If you have time and interest you really should go read the whole interview at the NASA archive. She has some great stories about the early days of NASA. She also has an inspiring outlook on life. The interviewer asked her about seeing the contemporary results of some of the work she did on emerging technologies, like batteries for electric vehicles, she said, "I'm happy at the time when I see it, but my big thing now is trying to learn to snowboard."

At the time she was 68! Yeah, yeah, I helped usher in the era of electric cars, but what's really neat is carving fresh pow. Ha!

So there you go. Another American we can be proud of.--a little girl whose mother told her she could accomplish anything if she would work at it. Looking back at her life she was very proud of all the work that she did and cherished the memory of the people that she worked with. That's the kind of story worth passing on don't you think?

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

BLACK HISTORY MONTH: What does a wrench have to do with it?

Okay, so here's the deal. One of the things about being white is that every year there's this thing called Black History Month. As a white man no one has ever told me what I'm supposed to do during this month. What generally happened each year growing up was a lesson or two in school about George Washington Carver and all the wonderful things he did with peanuts. Then throughout the month I would hear a few juvenile white folks grumble about not having a "White History Month" and not seeing the big deal about the achievements and contributions of African Americans. My black friends didn't say much at all about the month. I guess because it would have been kind of awkward. Or maybe it was embarrassing because all anyone seemed to know about Black contributions to society was the many uses of peanuts.

So now that I'm tentatively acknowledging that I am indeed a "grown up" I'm realizing that I don't have to let anyone else dictate what I do for Black History Month. It is completely up to me to decide. I recently randomly came across a short documentary on Bessie Coleman on the Smithsonian Channel. She was the first Black (and Native American) female to get her pilot's license. I found her story surprising, inspiring and just plain cool. And instead of thinking about the social ramifications of race and all that, I simply felt...proud. Yes, that's right, I'm proud of Bessie Coleman. What right do I, a white man, have to feel proud about Bessie Coleman, a black woman who died 90 years ago? Well, she's an American, for one thing! And furthermore she's a human being, and what do you know I am too! We have a lot in common. We both have faced the struggles that are common to all people. We both have asked ourselves, "What can I do with my life?" She stands as an example of the American spirit. She was an innovator with courage, gumption and creativity. That is a legacy that I want to be a part of.

Well, this feeling of pride melted into a feeling that is hard to explain. I felt like I had walked into a room where I'm not allowed. Was it right for me to horn in on African American legacy and claim it as my own? What foolishness! Somewhere along the way I bought into a lie perpetuated by who-knows-who (perhaps no one in particular) that we live in a separated society. The lie says that what's theirs is theirs and whats ours is ours. Perhaps the very celebration of Black History Month made me believe the lie. I believe that Black History Month is actually a good corrective to a great evil in our society. It reminds us to look back at our stories and remember that there were people who went unnoticed in their own time BECAUSE they were a minority. It reminds us that there have always been people willing to look past their current situation and rise above their expected lot in life. Those stories should inspire all of us. The danger comes when White folks think of it at "their" history month, and when Black folks think of it as "our" history month. The history belongs to all of us. It is ours to claim or to be ignorant of. I'm suggesting that ALL of us can take pride in the accomplishments and contributions of ALL of those who went before us? I think it would be much more fun. So if you are interested, check back here this month. I'll be posting things I come across that elucidate the contributions of some people you might never have heard of before.

For today, I highly recommend the Smithsonian documentary linked above. Or you could go read the Wikipedia entry. If nothing else, you should read about her tragic death. It is quite shocking. SHOCKING I tell you. I won't spoil it, but I will warn you that it is, of course, a sad ending and a wrench plays a major role.