IF MY HEART HAD WINGS – Book Excerpt #5 – “The Computer Who Wore a Skirt”

Nadine quizzes her mother about her former life as a mathematician at the forerunner of NASA during World War II.

I was dying to wash my hands. The gooey bread dough I’d been kneading covered my palms and glued my fingers together. I could barely scrape the stuff off with a knife. We were still in the dog days of summer, but Mom had decided to bake bread and thought it was high time I learned how. So there I was, baking in August.

Desperate for something to occupy my mind while I wrestled with the sticky dough, I said, “So tell me again about the time you worked for the CIA.”

“The CIA?” Mom raised an eyebrow. “I never worked for the CIA. I worked at Langley Field, which is where the CIA is today. Hey, watch out, you’re pushing flour onto the floor!”

“Oops. Okay, if it wasn’t the CIA, then what were you doing?”

“NACA hired me, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. It’s NASA today. It was back during World War II and they were looking for women to do math calculations for their flight testing experiments–all the men were off to war. So they went around to the colleges looking for female math students who were about to graduate.”

“And that was you.”

“Yes, that was me.”

NACA (referred to as “Langley” by virtually everyone) was charged with the task of designing and producing military planes, and they were under intense pressure to get faster and better planes into the air ASAP for the war effort. With a hugely increased workload and practically all of their male employees off to war, Langley was desperate for women who could do the mathematical equations and calculations necessary for the designing and testing phases. And they had to do them by hand, using slide rules, curves, and basic calculating machines because there weren’t any computers back then.

The women who did these math calculations were called “computers,” and their everyday tasks included reading, calculating, and plotting data gathered from the tests performed in Langley’s research division and wind tunnels.

Mom and two of her friends had applied for the “computer” job when they were still in their senior year at college. And all of them were hired.

“The salary was terrific,” she enthused. “$2,400 a year!”

It sounded pretty paltry to me.

“But it wasn’t,” she insisted. “Not in those days. It was four times what my dad made at the meatpacking factory. And twice what my brother was making as a teacher. You really couldn’t beat it, especially if you were a woman.”

It wasn’t all roses, of course, but the job turned out to be interesting and challenging, if a bit intense.

“We worked closely with the engineers,” she told me. “They drew up the plans for the planes, the researchers did the testing, and we got the raw data. We did all the calculations and, boy, you’d better come up with the right answers, or everything could go haywire. I always rechecked my work at least three times before handing it over.”

“Sounds like a ton of work,” I sniffed. Ugh, who would want to do math problems all day long?

“It was work, all right,” she admitted, “but it was also fun.” Her gaze softened as she thought back to those days. “I always loved math because it’s like a puzzle. And there I was at Langley, working on puzzles for a living and doing my part to bring the boys home sooner. What could be better than that?”

The “computer in a skirt” who read, calculated, and plotted data from tests at Langley did help bring the boys home sooner. All of them were women, with an average age of 21, doing work that, up until then, had been exclusively reserved for men. Thanks to their excellent skills and professionalism, they successfully blazed a trail for other women seeking careers in aeronautical research, and were the forerunners of the women made famous in the movie Hidden Figures, having done the same thing, but twenty years earlier.

Mom (right), 1943 with other  “computers”

If you enjoyed this excerpt, you’ll love If My Heart Had Wings: A World War II Love Story — the true story of the life and death of a WWII pilot and the tumultuous life of the young widow he left behind. Click below to buy it today!