You may know the name Katherine Johnson if you’ve seen Hidden Figures – a biographical film which tells the story of African American female mathematicians at NASA. In the film, prominent mathematician Katherine G Johnson is portrayed by Taraji P Henderson.
If you haven’t seen the film yet I recommend you do…..but first let me tell you a little bit about Katherine Johnson and why she figures in this series of Pioneering Women in Technology.
A passion for learning
Katherine Johnson (nee Coleman) was born in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, a small town in West Virginia. The youngest of four children, Johnson was raised by parents who placed a great deal of emphasis on education—her own mother was a former teacher.
Katherine was, by all accounts, quite a prodigious child who excelled at mathematics. However, the county did not offer public schooling to African-American children past the eighth grade (13 years old). Despite this, her ambitious parents focused on their children’s education and Mr and Mrs Coleman ensured that Katherine and her siblings had places secured at a high school in West Virginia where they could continue their education.
Johnson excelled in her studies; graduated from high school at 14 and went on to enrol at West Virginia State College to continue her education. In 1932, at the age of 18, she graduated summa cum laude with a B.S. degree in French and Mathematics. Johnson was one of the first African Americans to enrol in the college’s mathematics programme and a specialist course in analytic geometry was created specifically for her by Dr. W.W. Schieffin Claytor, who himself was the third African American to gain a PhD in mathematics.
In 1939, Johnson returned to the university as a student of the newly de-segregated graduate programme. She was the only woman and one of only three African American students to be selected to enrol.
A mathematician and ‘computer’
After university, Johnson embarked on a career as a teacher. But her career took a different turn in 1952 after a family gathering when a relative told her that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA and precursor to NASA) was hiring mathematicians.
In 1953, she joined Langley Research Centre (LaRC) as a research mathematician for NACA and was assigned to the all-male flight research division. At Langley, like many of the other women employed there, Johnson worked as a ‘computer’ employing her knowledge of analytic geometry. During this period, the state of Virginia still had racial segregation laws in place, so Johnson and her other African American colleagues were working and eating in segregated areas from their white peers. This practice carried on until 1958 when the ‘coloured’ computing pool was disbanded by NASA.
An aerospace technologist
By 1958, Johnson was working as an aerospace technologist and moved to NASA’s Spacecraft Control Branch. Amongst her many achievements she calculated the trajectory of the 1961 Space flight of Alan Shepard (the first American in space) and calculated the launch window for his 1961 Mercury mission.
Famously, in 1966 when NASA employed electronic computers for the first time to calculate John Glenn’s flight around the earth, he insisted that it was Johnson who checked the figures. He is quoted as asking the engineers to ‘get the girl’ to run the numbers and ‘if she says they’re good then I’m ready to go’.
Johnson’s illustrious career didn’t end there. In 1969 she calculated the trajectory for the Apollo 11 flight to the Moon, and worked on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, where her work on back up procedures and charts helped to return the crew safely to Earth.
Over her lifetime, Johnson has been awarded many honours and awards in recognition of her skill and achievement, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom presented to her by Barack Obama. Additionally, the Katherine G Johnson Computational Research Facility was formally dedicated at Langley in 2016.
Pioneering Women in Technology is a series of blog posts (written and researched by the team) celebrating women who have made an impact in the technological sector across the decades. We hope you enjoy them as much as we do.