In the first half of the 20th century, the word "computer" meant a person who did heavy-duty computation. During the Second World War and the years following, this included doing the computation for missile development. When the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was created, computers were in great demand there.
And at JPL, something special happened.
Many of the early computers hired there were women.They were working closely with the engineers, who were all men; women were simply not hired as engineers, no matter what their qualifications. The woman who became head of the computer department decided she would only hire women.
This was not an era of gender equality. Women expected, and were expected, to marry and become mothers. There was no maternity leave, so a married working woman who became pregnant had no alternative but to quit.
But the women working at JPL became a bonded group, as much a family as a group of coworkers. And over the years, they worked to professionalize themselves, and to professionalize their image in the minds of their male coworkers. As the first machine computers were developed and brought in, it was the women computers who learned to use and program them. Both before and after the arrival of the machines, it was the women writing the programs that made both missiles and rockets fly.
This book follows the lives, professional and personal, of the women who first were JPL's computers, and later became the programmers of computers, and finally were recognized as engineers in their own right. They were a major component of the growth of NASA, and the development of the space program. We get to see the tensions between their personal lives and their professional lives, as well as the role they played in pushing the robot-based exploration of the solar system--missions to Venus, Mars, and beyond. It's a complex and stirring tale, and an important piece of both social and scientific history. The early parts especially, for younger readers (and by that I mean readers in their thirties, not kids) is likely to read like an account of an alien, or at the very least foreign, society.
So much progress has happened in my lifetime. I'd hate to see us go backward.
I bought this book.