After watching the movie “Hidden Figures” this weekend, I wanted to record some of my own experience in the research and development done during America’s space race. I am not equating my contribution to that of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, or Katherine Johnson. Beginning in 1963, I worked as an Engineering Aide at the Research Lab associated with Pratt & Whitney in East Hartford, CT, for nearly six years.
First assigned to the Air-breathing and Rocket Propulsion group, I wore the required dress length, stockings, and heels to work. The group’s secretary was a lovely and intelligent young black lady from Maryland; fortunately, there were no segregated bathrooms that far north.
My duties varied from running punch cards in the wind tunnel lab to sitting behind a large metal desk at a Friedan mechanical calculator, like those shown in the movie, converting raw data into data points for plotted graphs. Data was distributed in large binders of folded printouts that the newly-installed IBM machine produced. Computer operators were being hired, and the xerox machine had an attendant who made copies per your request.
My task was report preparation and it is amazing to see that from my first job onward preparing printed materials was my life-call. Back then, I carefully inked graphs using Leroy Lettering templates. I proofed manuscripts that the secretaries typed, and included masked photographs from the Wind Tunnel area I later supported.
I remember seeing the first digital calculator, the size of a large briefcase, that was bought to replace the whirring, noisy calculators. It could do the bare minimum of functions, but it was QUIET.
Was everyone dedicated to their jobs? Yes, but there were mistakes made. I found a calculation error from years prior to my employment. It was too late at that point to do anything except report it to the engineer.
Update: While researching Aeronautics industry in CT, I learned that in February 1963 the Research Lab announced expanded capabilities of its wind tunnel to meet flight conditions required by space craft. This explains the “mystery” of why I was hired immediately, without a four-year degree and no previous work history. My high school awards and college grades in math and science paved the way that June to fit me for one of the positions just opened by this NASA-related expansion.