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?