Pioneering black computers like Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson worked very hard. They also benefitted from healthy doses of luck. Shetterly argues that hard work and persistence set the stage for luck to make a difference in a person’s life, and she uses the term “serendipity” to describe what happens when random chance collides with preparedness. Serendipity, according to Shetterly, was a key ingredient in the West Area computers’ accomplishments.
Black computers like Johnson and Vaughan demonstrated a unique grasp of what Shetterly calls the “long-term impact of persistent action.” This hard work and persistence characterized all the work they did for the NACA. Katherine Johnson’s calculations wound up in significant scientific papers, but Johnson was forbidden to sit in on the editorial meetings where these papers were reviewed and scrutinized. So she kept asking to be included. “Her requests were gentle,” Shetterly writes, “like the trickle of water that eventually forces its way through rock…. She asked early, she asked often, and she asked penetrating questions about the work.” Finally, she broke through. “The engineers just got tired of saying no. Who were they, they must have figured, to stand in the way of someone so committed to making a contribution, so convinced of the quality of her contribution that she was willing to stand up to the men whose success—or failure—might tip the balance in the outcome of the Cold War?” Here, Shetterly shows how Johnson’s unique diligence set her apart and helped her achieve her dreams.
Dorothy Vaughan took advantage of a similar strategy. At 50, realizing she was going to be put out of a job by the IBM computers that were rapidly replacing her team, she reinvented herself as a programmer, teaching herself to code. “If anyone could bear witness to the long-term impact of persistent action, and also to the strength of the forces opposing change, it was Dorothy Vaughan,” Shetterly writes. Here, she shows how Vaughan, like Johnson, demonstrated unflagging resilience so that she could achieve her goals.
The computers were also very lucky, both to get jobs at the NACA, and because they happened to find themselves there at a time when, slowly but surely, opportunities were opening up for women and black people in the sciences. Shetterly writes that Katherine Johnson’s friends and colleagues tended to think of her as “lucky,” explaining that it had always been her “great talent to be in the right place at the right time.” It was, for example, sheer luck that Johnson was at a wedding in 1952 where her brother-in-law mentioned that the NACA was looking for black female computers. Johnson applied for a position that same year. She felt “‘very, very fortunate,’ to have lucked into a job that paid her three times her salary as a teacher.” Shetterly writes, highlighting the role Johnson believed luck played in her career.
Shetterly also examines the function of luck in the advancement of some female computers into senior roles. She writes, “In 1974, an equal opportunity program gave Gloria [Champine] the chance to advance from a clerical position in the Dynamic Loads Division into a faster-track administrative position in the Acoustics Division.” In part because of the luck of her timing (her work at the NACA coincided with the equal opportunity program), Champine was able to work her way up from secretary to Technical Assistant to the Division Chief of Space Systems, “a job that had previously only been held by men.” Shetterly again shows that luck—in this case related to timing—played a crucial role in the progress women and people of color made at the NACA in this era.
Shetterly is clear, however, that luck alone does not account for the success of black computers at the NACA; it was luck on top of a bedrock of perseverance, talent, and effort. Shetterly calls this combination of luck and hard work “serendipity,” a term she applies to the life-changing opportunities that present themselves when random chance collides with preparedness.
For example, though Katherine Johnson had the luck to get a job at the NACA, and to be assigned as a computer to the space flight team, it was her hard work and persistence that led astronaut John Glenn to single her out over all the other mathematicians to double check calculations for his historic flight. Shetterly writes, “Simple luck is the random birthright of the hapless….Serendipity happens when a well-trained mind looking for one thing encounters something else: the unexpected. It comes from being in a position to seize opportunity from the happy marriage of time, place, and chance. It was serendipity that called [Johnson] in the countdown to John Glenn’s flight.” Shetterly’s argument is that hard work, perseverance and luck all combined to allow Johnson to build a lasting legacy.
Shetterly applies the same notion to the career trajectory of Gloria Champine. After winning a role in the Acoustics Division, she competed for “an even higher position as the Technical Assistant to the Division Chief of Space Systems, a job that had previously been held by men.” Champine interviewed three times and came out on top each time. A friend in HR later told her that they kept interviewing her because they didn't want to give the position to a woman, but ultimately they did hire her because she was the best candidate for the job. Through Champine, Shetterly shows that it was the most assiduous computers, those who knew what to do with good luck when it found them, who ultimately prevailed.
Though it was often luck and good timing that landed them their jobs, while they were at NACA, the best female computers had no choice but to work hard and persevere. Because of this, when opportunities for advancement presented themselves, they were ready. These women fought for acceptance and for equal opportunity by taking advantage of chance and meeting it with preparedness and persistence.
Luck, Persistent Action, and Hard Work ThemeTracker
Luck, Persistent Action, and Hard Work Quotes in Hidden Figures
Before a computer became an inanimate object, and before Mission Control landed in Houston; before Sputnik changed the course of history, and before the NACA became NASA; before the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka established that separate was in fact not equal, and before the poetry of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s "I Have a Dream" speech rang out over the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Langley's West Computers were helping America dominate aeronautics, space research, and computer technology, carving out a place for themselves as female mathematicians who were also black, black mathematicians who were also female. For a group of bright and ambitious African American women, diligently prepared for a mathematical career and eager for a crack at the big leagues, Hampton, Virginia, must have felt like the center of the universe.
…At the end of November 1943, at thirty-two years old, a second chance—one that might finally unleash her professional potential—found Dorothy Vaughan. It was disguised as a temporary furlough from her life as a teacher, a stint expected to end and deposit her back in the familiarity of Farmville when her country's long and bloody conflict was over. The Colemans' youngest daughter would eventually find the same second chance years in the future, following Dorothy Vaughan down the road to Newport News, turning the happenstance of a meeting during the Greenbrier summer into something that looked a lot more like destiny.
In 1940, just 2 percent of all black women earned college degrees, and 60 percent of those women became teachers, mostly in public elementary and high schools. Exactly zero percent of those 1940 college graduates became engineers. And yet, in an era when just 10 percent of white women and not even a full third of white men had earned college degrees, the West Computers had found jobs and each other at the "single best and biggest aeronautical research complex in the world.”
Readers of black newspapers around the country followed the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen with an intensity that bordered on the obsessive. Who said a Negro couldn’t fly! Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr. and the 332nd Fighter Group took the war to the Axis powers from thirty thousand feet. The papers sent special correspondents to shadow the pilots as they served in the skies over Europe, each dispatch from the European front producing shivers of delight. Flyers Help Smash Nazis! Negro Pilots sink Nazi warship! 332nd Bags 25 Enemy planes, Breaks Record in weekend victories! No radio serial could compete with the real life exploits of the men who were the very embodiment of the Double V.
As if trying to redeem his own professional disappointment through the achievements of one of the few students whose ability matched his impossibly high standards, Claytor maintained an unshakable belief that Katherine could meet with a successful future in mathematical research, all odds to the contrary. The prospects for a Negro woman in the field could be viewed only as dismal. If Dorothy Vaughan had been able to accept Howard University's offer of graduate admission, she likely would have been Claytor's only female classmate, with virtually no postgraduate career options outside of teaching, even with a master's degree in hand. In the 1930s, just over a hundred women in the United States worked as professional mathematicians. Employers openly discriminated against Irish and Jewish women with math degrees; the odds of a black woman encountering work in the field hovered near zero.
"Why can’t I go to the editorial meetings?” she asked the engineers. A postgame recap of the analysis wasn’t nearly as thrilling as being there for the main event. How could she not want to be a part of the discussion? They were her numbers, after all.
Many years later, Katherine Johnson would say it was just luck that of all the computers being sent to engineering groups, she was the one sent to the Flight Research Division to work with the core of the team staffed on an adventure that hadn’t yet been conceived. But simple luck is the random birthright of the hapless. When seasoned by the subtleties of accident, harmony, favor, wisdom, and inevitability, luck takes on the cast of serendipity. Serendipity happens when a well-trained mind looking for one thing encounters something else: the unexpected. It comes from being in a position to seize opportunity from the happy marriage of time, place, and chance. It was serendipity that called her in the countdown to John Glenn's flight.
Katherine Johnson is the most recognized of all the NASA human computers, black or white. The power of her story is such that many accounts incorrectly credit her with being the first black woman to work as a mathematician at NASA, or the only black woman to have held the job. She is often mistakenly reported as having been sent to the "all-male" Flight Research Division, a group that included four other female mathematicians, one of whom was also black. One account implied that her calculations singlehandedly saved the Apollo 13 mission. That even Katherine Johnson's remarkable achievements can’t quite match some of the myths that have grown up around her is a sign of the strength of the vacuum caused by the long absence of African Americans from mainstream history.