Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race - Margot Lee Shetterly (2016)
Chapter 11. The Area Rule
In the early 1950s, there was rarely a slow workday for Dorothy Vaughan. With research activity concentrated on the West Side of Langley’s campus, Dorothy managed a steady stream of computing jobs, dispatching incoming assignments to the women in her office and sending her computers out to various engineering groups located in the vicinity with greater frequency. Most of the work that came into the West Area computing office originated from one of the tunnels on the West Side or from the Flight Research Division, which was located in Building 1244, the West Side’s new hangar. Though the East Side was now smaller in size and activity than Langley’s booming West Side, facilities like the Spin Tunnel (a building shaped like a squat smokestack where engineers analyzed models subjected to dangerous spins) and Tanks nos. 1 and 2 (three-thousand-foot-long channels for testing seaplanes) remained busy. The Full-Scale Tunnel, the linchpin of the lab’s World War II drag cleanup work, continued to test everything from low-speed aircraft designed with delta wings to helicopters. During intense periods, if the work exceeded the available hands, computing supervisors working in the East Area might put in a phone call to Dot Vaughan for reinforcements.
On one such occasion, two years after Mary joined West Computing, Dorothy Vaughan sent Mary to the East Side, staffing her on a project alongside several white computers. The routines of the computing work had become familiar to Mary, but the geography of the East Side was not. Her morning at the East Side job proceeded without incident—until nature called.
“Can you direct me to the bathroom?” Mary asked the white women.
They responded to Mary with giggles. How would they know where to find her bathroom? The nearest bathroom was unmarked, which meant it was available to any of the white women and off-limits to the black women. There were certainly colored bathrooms on the East Side, but with most black professionals concentrated on the West Side, and fewer new buildings on the East Side, Mary might need a map to find them. Angry and humiliated, she stormed off on her own to find her way to her restroom.
Negotiating racial boundaries was a daily fact of Negro life. Mary wasn’t naive about the segregation at Langley—it was no different than anywhere in town. Yet she couldn’t shake this particular incident. It was the proximity to professional equality that gave the slight such a surprising and enduring sting. Unlike the public schools, where minuscule budgets and ramshackle facilities exposed the sham of “separate but equal,” the Langley employee badge supposedly gave Mary access to the same workplace as her white counterparts. Compared to the white girls, she came to the lab with as much education, if not more. She dressed each day as if she were on her way to a meeting with the president. She trained the girls in her Girl Scout troop to believe that they could be anything, and she went to lengths to prevent negative stereotypes of their race from shaping their internal views of themselves and other Negroes. It was difficult enough to rise above the silent reminders of Colored signs on the bathroom doors and cafeteria tables. But to be confronted with the prejudice so blatantly, there in that temple to intellectual excellence and rational thought, by something so mundane, so ridiculous, so universal as having to go to the bathroom … In the moment when the white women laughed at her, Mary had been demoted from professional mathematician to a second-class human being, reminded that she was a black girl whose piss wasn’t good enough for the white pot.
Still fuming as she walked back to West Computing later that day, Mary Jackson ran into Kazimierz Czarnecki, an assistant section head in the four-by-four-foot Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. A stocky fellow with a lantern jaw who played first base in the Langley softball league, Kazimierz Czarnecki—friends called him “Kaz”—was a native of New Bedford, Massachusetts, who had come to the laboratory in 1939 after graduating from the University of Alabama with an aeronautical engineering degree. His good nature and prodigious research output made him a well-liked, well-respected member of the laboratory staff. Before joining the four-foot SPT, Kaz had worked as a member of the Nine-inch Supersonic Tunnel research staff, which maintained an office in the Aircraft Loads Building, where West Area Computing was housed.
Most blacks automatically put on a mask around whites, a veil that hid the “dead-weight of social degradation” that scholar W. E. B. Du Bois gave voice to so eloquently in The Souls of Black Folk. The mask offered protection against the constant reminders of being American and the American dilemma. It obscured the anger that blacks knew could have life-changing—even life-ending—consequences if displayed openly. That day, however, as Mary Jackson ran into Kazimierz Czarnecki on the west side of the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, there was no turning inward, no subversion, and no dissembling. Mary Jackson let her mask slip to the ground and answered Czarnecki’s greeting with a Mach 2 blowdown of frustration and resentment, letting off steam as she ranted about the insult she had experienced on the East Side.
Mary Jackson was a soft-spoken individual, but she was also forthright and unambiguous. She chose to speak to everyone around her in the same serious and direct fashion, whether they were adolescents in her Girl Scout troop or engineers in the office. Mary was also a shrewd and intuitive judge of character, an emotionally intelligent woman who paid close attention to her surroundings and the people around her. Whether her outpouring in front of Czarnecki was the spontaneous result of having reached a breaking point or something more astute, she picked the right person to vent to. What had started as one of the worst workdays Mary Jackson had ever had would end up being the turning point of her career.
“Why don’t you come work for me?” Czarnecki asked Mary. She didn’t hesitate to accept the offer.
While the national press published stories on Langley’s link to the Rosenberg scandal, industry outlets like Aviation Week lauded the laboratory for two related advances that would revolutionize high-speed aircraft production: slotted walls in wind tunnels and an innovation known as the Area Rule.
The point of a wind tunnel, of course, was to simulate as closely as possible the conditions that prevailed in free flight. Interference from airflows bouncing off the solid walls of the test section, one of the phenomena examined by Margery Hannah and Sam Katzoff in their 1948 report, was one of the limitations of ground-based testing. The problem was most notable in the transonic range, as the eddies of air surrounding an object approached the speed of sound. A Langley researcher named Ray Wright had the intuition that cutting holes or slots in the walls of the wind tunnels would alleviate the interference effects, a concept that was proven when Langley built a small test tunnel with perforated walls. In 1950, they retrofitted the Sixteen-foot High-Speed Tunnel (rechristened the Sixteen-foot Transonic Dynamics Tunnel) with slotted walls and then did the same for the Eight-foot High-Speed Tunnel. Taming the tunnel interference was a “long sought technical prize” for the researchers, and in 1951 it earned John Stack and his colleagues another coveted Collier Trophy.
The new tunnel design set the stage for the second of the decade’s significant developments. An engineer named Richard Whitcomb noticed that in the transonic speed range, the greatest turbulence occurred at the point where the wings of a model plane connected to its fuselage. Indenting the plane’s body inward along that joint reduced the drag dramatically and resulted in an increase of as much as 25 percent in the plane’s speed for the same level of power. The Area Rule (so-called because the formula predicted the correct ratio of the area of a cross-section of a plane’s wing to the area of the cross-section of its body) had the potential to have a greater impact on everyday aviation than supersonic aircraft, because of the thousands of aircraft whose operating speed topped out at the transonic range. The press had more than the usual fun with such an esoteric engineering concept, calling the new planes “wasp-waisted” and “Coke-bottle shaped” and talking about the “Marilyn Monroe effect.” Whitcomb scored a sit-down with CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite and gained a measure of local celebrity (“Hampton Engineer Besieged by Public,” read a somewhat hyperbolic Daily Press headline). In 1954, Whitcomb would take home Langley’s third Collier Trophy in less than a decade.
For all the advances that had occurred on the laboratory’s watch since 1917—cowled engines, laminar flow airfoils, supersonic research planes, an icing tunnel that led to improvements in flight safety in freezing temperatures—the existing body of aeronautical knowledge still sheltered unexplored corners. The investments in new and upgraded facilities on Langley’s West Side made in the late 1940s and early 1950s were yielding research breakthroughs and impacting the nature of the assignments Dorothy handed out to her staff.
Unlike academically oriented research organizations, the NACA’s laboratories always strove to live up to the “practical solutions” of their founding mission. The hands-on nature of the work at Langley was visible in the planes parked in the hangar, in the workshops where craftsmen built models to the engineers’ specifications, in the work of the mechanics who affixed the models in the proper positions in the test sections, and in the guts of the powerful new tunnels like the Unitary Plan Tunnel, which looked like “an oil refinery under a roof.” No matter how abstract the work or how conceptual the problem being solved, no one at Langley ever forgot that behind the numbers was a real-world goal: faster planes, more efficient planes, safer planes.
Of course, the NACA wasn’t such a bad place for the theoretical engineers either. Dorothy Hoover thrived in the Stability Analysis Division. By 1951, she had earned the lofty title of aeronautical research scientist, graded GS-9 in the government’s revamped rating system. When Hoover’s boss, R. T. Jones, left Langley for the NACA’s Ames laboratory in 1946, Dorothy continued her work with the group’s other notable researchers. Her Langley career reached a peak in 1951 with the publication of two reports, one with Frank Malvestuto, the other with Herbert Ribner, both of them detailed analyses of the swept-back wings that were now a standard feature of production aircraft. What the compressed-air and fresh-air engineers examined through direct observation, the theoreticians approached through fifty-page treatises in which one single equation might occupy the better part of a page. If research production was a measure of career viability—and it was—theoretical aerodynamics might have been the best place in the world to be a female researcher. Dorothy Hoover, Doris Cohen, and at least three other women published one or more reports with the group between 1947 and 1951. The leaders of the group clearly valued and cultivated the talent of their female members. Perhaps it was the remove from the brawnier aspects of engineering that made the theoretical group such a productive environment for women.
In 1952, Dorothy Hoover decided to take a leave of absence from the world of engineering and give herself over to the theoretical pursuits that were closest to her heart. She resigned from Langley and returned to her alma mater, Arkansas AM&N, for a master’s degree in mathematics. Her thesis, “On Estimates of Error in Numerical Integration,” was included in the 1954 proceedings of the Arkansas Academy of Science. That same year she enrolled in the University of Michigan under a John Hay Whitney Fellowship, a program designed to match talented Negro scholars with the country’s most competitive graduate programs.
Mary Jackson, on the other hand, leaned in to the the engineer’s paradise that was the NACA. With a background in math and physics, she brought to the job an understanding of the physical phenomena behind the calculations she worked on. And the Langley people were busy people like her, running off after work to play on one of the laboratory’s sports teams or attend a club meeting or lecture. Many of them tutored kids in math and science, something that Mary had done since graduating from college. Whether or not she had it planned at the time, Mary Jackson was on her way to becoming a Langley lifer.
During new-employee induction on her first day of work, Mary Jackson had met James Williams, a twenty-seven-year-old University of Michigan engineering grad and former Tuskegee airman who had fallen in love with airplanes as a teenager. Williams applied for engineering positions through the Civil Service but had been wary of moving to a state south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Langley’s personnel officer, Melvin Butler, courted Williams energetically by phone, trying to convince him to accept the laboratory’s offer. He even made arrangements for a place for Williams to live in Hampton. Further enticement was provided by a beautiful psychology grad student named Julia, who after graduation would be returning to her native Virginia. Butler, perhaps trying to circumvent complaints that might short-circuit his offer, did not disclose ahead of time to Langley’s engineering staff that the newest recruit was black. Williams wasn’t the first black engineer hired by Langley, but the couple of black men who preceded him had come and gone so quickly that not even their names remained in the institutional memory.
On his first day, Williams had had to convince the guards at the Langley security gate that he wasn’t a groundskeeper or cafeteria worker so that he could get passed along for processing as an engineer. Several white supervisors refused him a place in their groups, but an influential branch chief in the Stability Research Division named John D. Bird—“Jaybird”—raised his hand right away to offer the young man a position. “Jaybird was as fair as it got,” Williams’s wife, Julia, remembered years later.
Not everyone in the group was as enthusiastic as Bird. “So how long do you think you’re going to be able to hang on?” one new office mate teased, referring to the black engineers who had washed out. “Longer than you!” Williams retorted. Whereas the black women enjoyed the support that came from being part of a group, starting in a pool was not an option for a male engineer. Williams and the other black men who were soon to follow in his footsteps had a more solitary work life and faced aggressions that the women did not. But even though it was the black women who broke Langley’s color barrier, paving the way for the black men now being hired, the women would still have to fight for something that the black men could take for granted: the title of engineer.
Soon after moving to the four-by-four-foot Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, Mary Jackson was given an assignment by John Becker, the chief of the Compressibility Division (compressibility referred to the compression of air molecules characteristic of faster-than-sound flight), Kazimierz Czarnecki’s boss’s boss’s boss. Langley liked to think of itself as a place that eschewed bureaucracy, where an idea from a cafeteria worker could get a fair hearing if it were compelling enough. Division chiefs, just two rungs down from the top post in the laboratory, however, were Very Important People. John Becker, heir to John Stack and Eastman Jacobs and other NACA legends, ruled an empire composed of the Four-foot SPT and all the other tunnels devoted to supersonic and hypersonic research. Becker was the kind of guy the eager front-row boys from the top engineering programs would do anything to impress.
John Becker gave Mary Jackson the instructions for working through the calculations. She delivered the finished assignment to him just as she completed her work for Dorothy Vaughan, double-checking all numbers, confident that they were correct. Becker reviewed the output, but something about the numbers didn’t seem right to him. So he challenged Mary’s numbers, insisting that her calculations were wrong. Mary Jackson stood by her numbers. She and her division chief went back and forth over the data, trying to isolate the discrepancy. Finally, it became clear: the problem wasn’t with her output but with his input. Her calculations were correct, based on the wrong numbers Becker had given her.
John Becker apologized to Mary Jackson. The episode earned Mary a reputation as a smart mathematician who might be able to contribute more than just calculations to her new group. Her showdown with John Becker was the kind of gambit that the laboratory expected, encouraged, and valued in its promising male engineers. Mary Jackson—a former West Computer!—had faced down the brilliant John Becker and won. It was a cause for quiet celebration and behind-the-scenes thumbs-up among all the female computers.
Most engineers were also good mathematicians. But it was the women who massaged the numbers, swam in the numbers, scrutinized the numbers until their eyes blurred, from the time they set their purses down on the desks in the morning until the time they put on their coats to leave at the end of the day. They checked each other’s work and put red dots on the data sheets when they found errors—and there were very, very few red dots. Some of the women were capable of lightning-fast mental math, rivaling their mechanical calculating machines for speed and accuracy. Others, like Dorothy Hoover and Doris Cohen, had highly refined understandings of theoretical math, differentiating their way through nested equations ten pages deep with nary an error in sign. The best of the women made names for themselves for accuracy, speed, and insight. But having the independence of mind and the strength of personality to defend your work in front of the most incisive aeronautical minds in the world—that’s what got you noticed. Being willing to stand up to the pressure of an opinionated, impatient engineer who put his feet up on the desk and waited while you did the work, who wanted his numbers done right and done yesterday, to spot the bug in his logic and tell him in no uncertain terms that he was the one who was wrong—that was a rarer quality. That’s what marked you as someone who should move ahead.