Human Computers historical marker

Human Computers (H-126)

Women mathematicians, many from N.C., executed complex calculations for U.S. military and NASA, 1941-1975, during WWII and the Space Race.

Location: Jones St. at Salisbury St., Raleigh
County: Wake
Original Date Cast: 2023

In the early days of aerospace engineering, people—and not machines—performed the mathematical calculations necessary to put a human in space. Women comprised the majority of these “calculators,” or “computers,” taking on work originally performed by male engineers. According to a historical report by Richard P. Hallion, this deliberately gendered decision to hire women as computers was made based on the contemporary belief that men simply did not possess the "patience" to perform the "long and tedious" work.

For these women—graduates of North Carolina institutions like Meredith College, the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina (the modern U.N.C.-Greensboro), and the North Carolina College for Negroes (the modern N. C. Central), among others—the tools of the trade were not electronic, or even necessarily electric. Armed with slide rules, curves, magnifying glasses, spring-loaded calculating machines, pencils, and paper, these “human computers” from North Carolina participated in some of the most widely recognized American aerospace achievements of the twentieth century. Though their work varied depending on the unit to which they were assigned, the women could all expertly perform three foundational tasks: interpreting and analyzing film, conducting complex calculations, and plotting data points.

While working for NASA’s precursor—the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA—at Muroc (later Edwards) Air Force Base in California, computers Mary Hedgepeth of Cleveland County and Roxanah Yancey of Person County processed raw instrument panel readings into functional engineering data in support of the X-plane program, a series of experimental rocket planes that broke the sound barrier and carried pilots to the edges of space. As part of the Muroc computing pool, both women supported the work of more recognizable figures like test pilot Chuck Yeager and directly contributed to the early and most consequential developments of supersonic flight.

Virginia Tucker from Hertford in Perquimans County was among the first five women mathematicians assigned to the newly organized computer pool at Langley Research Center in Virginia in September 1935. During World War II, Tucker led the rapid expansion of the pool by recruiting extensively throughout the south, successfully bringing into the computing ranks many fellow North Carolinians. By 1946, she had been promoted to the position of Overall Supervisor for Computing, stewarding the work of more than 400 women mathematicians across Langley.

Christine Barnes Richie from Wilson in Wilson County arrived at Langley Research Center at a time when the facilities were still segregated. As part of the West Area Computers, Richie worked alongside Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan, both of Hidden Figures fame, to analyze data and plot projections for the country's space program. When NACA was absorbed by the newly organized National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1958, Langley and segregated facilities like it were integrated.

The work of the West Area Computers, however, paved the way for the likes of Dr. Christine Darden of Monroe in Union County, whose career is featured in the book Hidden Figures. Dr. Darden began her NASA career as a computer at Langley Research Center in 1967. Soon after her arrival, she and her colleagues transitioned into computer programming, and Dr. Darden eventually made her way to engineering. She concluded a distinguished forty-year career with NASA in 2007 and is recognized today as one of the world’s foremost experts on supersonic wing design and sonic boom mitigation.

Women computers from North Carolina directly contributed to American victory in the Space Race (1957-1975)* by doing the math that made NASA's space program possible. As our technology developed alongside our aerospace achievements, North Carolina computers such as Dr. Darden eagerly transitioned into computer programming and engineering, breaking barriers and paving the way for new generations of women scientists, mathematicians, and engineers.

Various interviews, JSC Oral History Project, available at….
"Virginia Tucker (Class of 1930)," Encyclopedia of UNCG History.
Sarah McLennan and Mary Gainer, "When the Computer Wore a Skirt: Langley's Computers, 1935-1970," News & Notes, Volume 29, No. 1; available at
Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race (2016).
Beverly Golemba, Human Computers: The Women in Aeronautical Research, unpublished (1995).
David J. Shayler and Ian Moule, Women in Space: Following Valentina (2005).
Richard P. Hallion, On the Frontier: Flight Research at Dryden, 1946-1981 (1984).

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