The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a facility in Los Angeles County, California that can trace its history to the early 1940s. At that time, rocket motors were a new development and the lab was an arm of the American military. A little known fact about the early years of JPL gives insight into both computing power and gender roles in America during that era.
In “the 1940s and 1950s, JPL used the word ‘computer’ to refer to a person rather than a machine.”2 Although the agency was developed exclusively by men, and all of the leadership consisted of men, it was an “all-female computer team . . . that [was] responsible for doing all the math by hand required to plot satellite trajectories and other scientific calculations.”3 Many of these women had been recruited right out of high school.4 Slide-rules, pencils, and paper were the tools of this team as digital computers were only in developmental stages at that time.5 A group similar to the one pictured here was the team who made it possible for Explorer 1 to be the first satellite launched by the United States when it was sent into space on January 31, 1958.6
Today, NASA and the JPL uses even larger teams of people to analyze data. At the website http://beamartian.jpl.nasa.gov/, more than 54,000 men and women have signed up to use their personal computers to analyze data sent to earth by the Mars Rover.7
1 http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/explorer/computers.html; Page Last Updated: January 3, 2008; Page Editor: Susan Watanabe; NASA Official: Brian Dunbar