It’s 1943 and Melvin Butler, the personnel officer at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, has a problem: one of Langley’s divisions needs to hire 100 junior physicists and mathematicians, 100 assistant computers, 75 minor laboratory apprentices, 125 helper trainees, and 50 stenographers and typists immediately. That division, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the NACA), is a civilian agency “charged with advancing the scientific understanding of aeronautics and disseminating its findings to the military and private industry.” Since the NACA operates out of the Langley airfield, its scientists are in the midst of army planes, which reminds them that the physics and engineering problems they are working out will have real world implications.
By listing numbers and quoting primary sources, Shetterly tosses the reader into a world of manic activity, a time when American military technology has begun to move at breakneck speed. She also signals to the reader, through her mention of the army planes, that her story is not simply about the forgotten computers—it’s also about the significance of Langley and the technology developed there to the American military and to scientific history.
America’s aircraft industry has recently become the largest in the world. To build and design planes, aircraft manufacturers work daily with scientists at the Langley laboratory. Every plane prototype gets checked by a team at Langley, so there is a great need for engineers, but also for support staff for these engineers, including mathematicians. At this time, mathematicians are mostly women, and Melvin Butler spreads the word throughout colleges and universities in the South that Langley needs math graduates to come and work.
Here, Shetterly immediately trains her spotlight on the women who served as support staff, indicating that this story will be about them, rather than the male physicists and engineers who tend to dominate conversations about aerospace technology. She also positions the reader at a point in history when US aerospace technology was advancing more rapidly than ever before, demonstrating again the role technology and science will play in her story.
A. Philip Randolph, the head of the largest black labor union in the country, has recently demanded that President Roosevelt open wartime job contracts to black applicants. Under much pressure, Roosevelt gives in, which means that jobs at Langley open up to black women. Black women from colleges in and around the South apply for, and win, spots as computers at Langley. Because Hampton, VA is segregated, the black women work in a separate workspace on the west side of the laboratory, called West Area. Butler keeps their hiring relatively quiet, allowing them to matriculate into the Langley Laboratory without fanfare. He does, however, affix a metal sign to a bathroom that reads COLORED.
Shetterly begins to situate the events in her book within the greater context of American and African American history. She points to the significance of the fact that black women started working alongside white women at Langley at a point when the South operated under segregationist Jim Crow laws. Here, Shetterly also places racial progress and technological progress side by side, suggesting that integration and the development of aerospace technology happened in parallel (even in tandem). This will continue to be true throughout the book.