Author: Nathalia Holt
Review: This was a fun read and highlighted some important work, but I would have liked more depth on the technical side of the story.
Long before ‘computers’ were calculating machines, they were mathematicians (primarily women) and eventually the first software developers. Working at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, an elite group of female computers fought hard to balance personal lives with careers they loved at a time when that was still considered a highly unusual thing for a woman to do. Through their expertise and painstaking effort, these computers “transformed rocket design, helped bring about the first American satellites, and made the exploration of the solar system possible” (source).
I was initially a bit disappointed by this book. The first story, focused on Barby Canright, spent a lot of time talking about her clothes, her makeup, and her relationships. That wouldn’t bother me, except there were also very few technical details of her work and a lot of the story focused on one of the men she worked with. Fortunately, it got better from there. All of the other women’s stories also talked about their relationships, but this was balanced by information about the work they did. I suspect that the bad beginning at least partially reflected the fact that earlier women computers were primarily doing math to implement other people’s ideas. They weren’t allowed to serve as engineers and were probably not often able to suggest experiments.
Occasionally, I did still feel that the author was stereotyping the women, (for instance, an older women was put in charge of the group not because of her experience, but because she was ‘a mother hen’) but overall the stories got better towards the end. I did really like that the author just told the women’s stories, without digressing into discussions of stereotypes and the barriers they faced. She let their stories speak for themselves. And they were great stories! Like in Hidden Figures, the author followed many women over decades, so we could see how many different women chose to balance their careers and how things changed over time. Many of the women worked on incredibly important space exploration efforts. The missions that gave us our first images of other planets were particularly awe-inspiring. Overall, I had a lot of fun reading this book. I just would have liked some more technical details to round it out!