Author: Margot Lee Shetterly
Angle of Attack – Summary
Chapter 14 talks about the advancement of aeronautical engineering in the 1950s and the transition from using mechanical calculators to electronic computers. The use of electronic computers brought greater power and efficiency to the research process, allowing for faster processing of data and more complex calculations. The chapter also discusses the challenges and limitations of early electronic computers and the fierce competition for computing time. As technology evolved, certain lines of inquiry, such as propeller research, became obsolete, and engineers had to find new specialties.
Dorothy Vaughan realizes that learning to work with computers will help her and her colleagues keep their jobs in the long run. She encourages her coworkers to enroll in courses to learn how to use the machines. Social progress has been slow but steady since the Civil War, with victories in education, government, and sports. In the 1950s, Farmville became a battleground for school integration, with Moton High School becoming overcrowded and unsafe. Barbara Johns, the niece of a civil rights activist, organized a walkout to protest the school’s conditions. This led to a court case that resulted in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which banned segregation in all public schools in the United States.
Virginia’s leading politicians, such as Harry Byrd wanted to resist racial integration in the 1950s. Langley, where the West Computers worked, offered many courses in math, science, and engineering at various locations, but black employees were still not allowed to attend the University of Virginia’s Extension Program because of segregation laws. Meanwhile, the United States was concerned about the quality of its schools and how they compared to the Soviet Union in math and science. There was a growing discussion about the participation of Black people in technical fields, and many reviews of the situation questioned the neglect of Black schools and the waste of potential brainpower.
Kaz Czarnecki saw something special in Mary Jackson and believed she was a great fit for the job. Kaz taught Mary how to use the wind tunnel and she quickly became very good at it. They did important research on designing missiles that could help the United States beat the Soviet Union. Mary’s boss suggested she join an engineer training program because she was so talented and passionate about her work. At the time, most women at the laboratory were classified as “computers” and worked under the direction of engineers. But Mary had Kaz Czarnecki, her mentor who wanted to help her advance in her career.
In the past, many top engineering schools in the United States did not accept women, and there were very few black female engineers. Mary Jackson was the first black woman to work as an engineer at NASA, but she faced many obstacles. In order to take the necessary courses, she had to petition the city of Hampton for “special permission” to attend classes in a whites-only school. This was a difficult process, but Mary was determined to pursue her career as an engineer. When she finally got permission, she was shocked to find that the school was old and dilapidated. Despite these challenges, Mary and other black engineers at NASA persevered, relying on each other for support as they worked towards the future.
Thomas Byrdsong, a new engineer at the Sixteen-Foot Transonic Dynamics Tunnel was sabotaged by a white mechanic, but his supervisor, Gerald Rainey, stood up for him. Thomas, like other black men at the laboratory, faced racism from some of the blue-collar workers, but found ways to opt out of segregated facilities. The passage also talks about the events that would test the United States in the next few years and how black Americans continued to fight for democracy at home and abroad.
In what ways did advances in aeronautical research change the methods by which Langley worked?
Langley’s work was greatly influenced by advances in aeronautical research, especially in the 1950s. As technology progressed, aeronautical engineering became more complex, and new machines were needed to perform calculations faster and more accurately. Langley purchased an electronic calculator from Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1947 to model flight at transonic speeds, which could take a month to calculate manually. The Bell calculator accomplished the same task in just a few hours. Later, Langley purchased IBM computers for their research, which were much faster and more efficient than the previous machines. These new machines helped Langley researchers calculate complex problems such as the trajectory of hypersonic rocket planes like the X-15. Overall, advances in aeronautical research led to the development of new technologies and tools that helped Langley researchers perform their work more efficiently and accurately.
How did the machines affect female mathematicians?
In the past, before electronic computers were widely used, human computers manually processed data and made calculations for scientific research. However, early electronic computers were expensive and not very reliable, so human computers were still needed to monitor and correct errors made by the machines. Even with their errors, the machines were faster and more efficient than humans. The use of electronic computers increased over time and eventually became the norm, causing some specialized jobs, such as propeller research, to become obsolete.
Although the female mathematicians’ jobs were not immediately threatened by the machines, they saw the importance of learning how to operate them in order to remain valuable to their workplace in the long-term.
Dorothy Vaughan, one of the female mathematicians, recognized that the introduction of electronic computers posed a potential threat to her job security. However, she also saw it as an opportunity to enhance her skills and gain expertise in managing the electronic computers. To ensure her long-term career stability, she enrolled in a series of computation courses sponsored by Langley, encouraging other women to do the same. Dorothy’s example shows how women mathematicians could adapt to the changing landscape of technology and work to stay relevant and valuable to the laboratory, even as machines took over some of their tasks.
How was the fight for social equality affecting education? How would those practices affect Langley recruitment?
The fight for social equality in the 1950s affected education, particularly in Farmville, where the public school system was segregated, overcrowded, and poorly equipped. In 1951, one of the old buses they used to transport students crashed, killing five students. This tragedy led Barbara Johns, a Moton High School student, to organize a walkout to protest against the abysmal conditions at the school.
Her campaign to attend a school that equaled the standards of white Farmville High caught the attention of Virginia lawyers, who joined forces with Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP’s chief counsel, and consolidated the Moton students’ suit with four others around the country into the US Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which banned segregation in all public schools in the United States in 1954.
However, Virginia’s leading politicians, including Senator Harry Byrd, were resistant to the ruling and organized massive resistance to it. As a result, the fight for social equality in education would continue for years to come.
Langley, where Dorothy Vaughan worked, offered a range of courses and lectures on its premises and nearby schools, including Hampton Institute, George Washington University, and Newport News High School. However, the city’s only public high school, Hampton High School, was off-limits to black children, who were still sent to Phenix High School. Even the UVa Extension Program, which hosted the University of Virginia’s Extension School, rebuffed Langley’s black employees. Consequently, black professionals at Langley still relied on black colleges like Hampton Institute for professional training and career advancement.
In what ways is Mary’s transition to engineer significant?
Mary Jackson’s transition to engineer is significant because it breaks down racial and gender barriers in the engineering field. At the time, engineering was a male-dominated profession, and women and black people faced discrimination and were rarely hired for engineering jobs. Mary’s transition is significant because it shows that people of color and women can be successful engineers if given the opportunity.
Additionally, Mary’s transition is significant because she had to fight against institutionalized racism and sexism to become an engineer, including having to petition for special permission to attend classes in a whites-only school. Her persistence and determination paved the way for future generations of engineers who come from diverse backgrounds.
What is meant by the title of Chapter 14 ‘Angle of Attack’?
The “Angle of Attack” has both a literal and a metaphorical meaning. Literally, it refers to the angle between the chord line of an airfoil and the direction of the relative wind. In the context of the text, it relates to the advancement of aeronautical engineering in the 1950s, which resulted in the development of new technologies and tools to help researchers perform their work more efficiently and accurately. The new machines, such as electronic calculators and IBM computers, helped researchers calculate complex problems, which would have taken a long time to calculate manually.
Metaphorically, the “Angle of Attack” refers to the challenges faced by the female mathematicians and black engineers at Langley in pursuing their careers in aeronautical engineering. The metaphorical meaning alludes to the barriers and obstacles that they faced, including racial and gender discrimination. For example, Mary Jackson, the first black woman to work as an engineer at NASA, had to petition the city of Hampton for “special permission” to attend classes in a whites-only school to take necessary courses. Thomas Byrdsong, a black engineer, was sabotaged by a white mechanic, but his supervisor stood up for him. Despite these challenges, these individuals persevered, relying on each other for support as they worked towards the future. Therefore, the “Angle of Attack” is not just a technical term in the field of aeronautical engineering but also symbolizes the struggle and determination of marginalized groups to overcome obstacles and achieve their goals.
Racism and Inequality:
Chapter 14 highlights the racial discrimination and inequality faced by black Americans in the 1950s. Despite the slow progress made since the Civil War, black people were still denied equal opportunities in education and employment due to segregation laws. Virginia’s leading politicians wanted to resist racial integration, and black employees at Langley were not allowed to attend the University of Virginia’s Extension Program. Black men, including Thomas Byrdsong, faced racism from some of the blue-collar workers, but found ways to opt out of segregated facilities.
Chapter 14 emphasizes the importance of community and mentorship in the careers of the female mathematicians and engineers at Langley. Mary Jackson had Kaz Czarnecki as her mentor, who wanted to help her advance in her career. Mary and other black engineers at NASA relied on each other for support as they faced challenges and obstacles in their careers.
Luck, Persistent Action, and Hard Work:
The chapter highlights the importance of persistence and hard work in achieving success. Dorothy Vaughan recognized that learning to work with computers would help her and her colleagues keep their jobs in the long run, and encouraged her coworkers to enroll in courses to learn how to use the machines. Mary Jackson was passionate about her work and quickly became very good at using the wind tunnel. She faced many obstacles in pursuing her career, including having to petition for “special permission” to attend classes in a whites-only school, but she was determined to succeed.
Scientific Progress vs. Social and Political Progress:
The chapter discusses the advancements in aeronautical engineering in the 1950s and the transition from using mechanical calculators to electronic computers. While the use of electronic computers brought greater power and efficiency to the research process, early electronic computers had limitations and there was fierce competition for computing time. Chapter 14 also highlights the slow but steady progress made in social and political areas since the Civil War, such as victories in education, government, and sports, and the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that banned segregation in all public schools in the United States.
Names Mentioned in Chapter 14
Barbara Johns: She was an African American high school student who organized a walkout to protest the overcrowding and unsafe conditions at her school in Farmville, Virginia, in 1951. Her actions led to a landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which ended segregation in public schools in the United States.
Thomas Byrdsong: He was an African American engineer who worked at the Sixteen-Foot Transonic Dynamics Tunnel at Langley Research Center in the 1950s. He faced racism from some of the blue-collar workers but found ways to opt out of segregated facilities.