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Annie Easley: a trailblazing NASA mathematician

Here at Ponicode, we loved the 2016 movie Hidden Figures, but they left out our favorite “hidden figure”: Annie Easley. Today, I’d like to tell you more about this genius mathematician and programming wiz.

Against the odds

Annie Easley was born in 1933 in Alabama to an African-American family, during era of Jim Crow racial segregation and when women were banned from the workforce in some states.  Annie demonstrated early brilliance, encouraged by her mother, a single parent who often told her “You can be anything you want to be, but you have to work at it”. These strong words and Annie’s perseverance led her to become valedictorian of her high school. She set out to study pharmacology at Xavier University, but was unable to continue her studies when her marriage took her to Cleveland, Ohio, where nearby colleges did not have similar programs. 

Second grade students at Monroe School, Topeka (1949).

The human computer

In 1955, she noticed a newspaper article about twins working as human computers at NACA, the predecessor of NASA. The job involved performing mathematical calculations before electronic computers were commercially available. A parallel between human computers and electronic computers, as we know them today, was drawn by Alan Turing in his famous Computing Machinery and Intelligence paper: “The idea behind digital computers may be explained by saying that these machines are intended to carry out any operations which could be done by a human computer. The human computer is supposed to be following fixed rules; he has no authority to deviate from them in any detail. We may suppose that these rules are supplied in a book, which is altered whenever he is put on to a new job. He has also an unlimited supply of paper on which he does his calculations.” Annie was charmed by the job description and decided to apply to NACA. Two weeks later, she was recruited as a mathematician and computer engineer in an organization where only four out of 2,500 employees were African-American.

When computers were human (1936).

At the time, computers were basically enormous calculators that pretty much only performed simple operations like addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. For example, to calculate a logarithm, an exponential or a square root, long tables were filled in by the human computers and long calculations were done by hand. Gradually, these machines became more and more powerful and Annie’s work shifted from hand calculations to programming these machines. 

As electronic computers could handle more and more mathematical operations, she decided to study at Cleveland State University. In 1977, she graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics.

Annie Easley monitors Lewis’ UNIVAC 1100/40 which was used for analytical and business data processing (1976).

The step up

In 1958, NACA became NASA and Annie was assigned to work as a Fortran and SOAP programmer on several projects. Most of them were related to energy: performance and economy of alternative energy sources, battery life, and other complex subjects. Her work contributed significantly to the development of Centaur, the energy-intensive rocket upper stage used for the deployment of the Surveyor 1 and Cassini probes (among others). She was among the team that developed the technological foundation for today’s satellites. One of the most important missions that Annie contributed to was Cassini-Huygens, a space exploration mission of the Saturnian system using a probe placed in orbit around Saturn.

Annie Easley receives Special Achievement Award from Director of Administration Henry Barnett (left) and Deputy Director Gene Manganiello (1970).

While at NASA, Annie served as an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) counselor, helping to handle discrimination-related complaints. After retiring in 1989, she became a real estate agent. She passed away at age 78 in 2011.

We salute Annie Easley as a brilliant mathematician and computer scientist, who succeeded in a competitive environment, despite the cards stacked against her. At Ponicode, we believe that different backgrounds and experiences are the key to rich exchanges that lead to groundbreaking innovations, and are always looking for the next Annie (or Andy!) Easley to join us!

Sources

[1] Annie Easley. (2020, May 3). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annie_Easley

[2] Annie J. Easley Oral History. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://historycollection.jsc.nasa.gov/JSCHistoryPortal/history/oral_histories/NASA_HQ/Herstory/EasleyAJ/EasleyAJ_8-21-01.htm

[3] Brown v. Board of Education. (2020, May 6). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brown_v._Board_of_Education

[4] National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. (2020, April 13). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Advisory_Committee_for_Aeronautics

[5] Computer (job description). (2020, April 12). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computer_(job_description)

[6] Turing, A. M. (2009). Computing machinery and intelligence. In Parsing the Turing Test (pp. 23-65). Springer, Dordrecht.

[7] Centaur (rocket stage). (2020, May 6). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centaur_(rocket_stage)

[8] Annie Easley. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www1.grc.nasa.gov/glenn-history/hall-of-fame/biographies/annie-easley/

[9] Second grade students at Monroe School, Topeka. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.kshs.org/index.php?url=km/items/view/208931

[10] Greicius, T. (2016, November 2). When Computers Were Human. Retrieved from https://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/when-computers-were-human