With the film “Hidden Figures” opening to rave reviews and big box office receipts this past weekend, UNCG remembers alumna Virginia Tucker ’30, a trailblazer for the female mathematicians – known as “computers” – highlighted in the film.
Tucker was one of five women to join the first human computer pool at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (now Langley Research Center) in 1935. Langley was the main research center for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor to NASA.
When World War II broke out in 1939, more women were recruited as computers to conduct wind tunnel testing and other critical research for the military. Tucker recruited heavily at institutions across the East Coast, including UNCG (known then as the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina). According to Margot Lee Shetterly, author of the book that inspired the movie, UNCG graduated one of the largest cohorts of women who went on to work as human computers.
By the early 1940s, Tucker was the head computer, tasked with managing hundreds of women in computing sections across the laboratory. In her book, Shetterly writes:
“Over the course of twelve years, Virginia Tucker had ascended from a subprofessional employee to the most powerful woman at the lab. She had done so much to transform the position of computer from a proto-clerical job into one of the laboratory’s most valuable assets. … Between 1942 and 1946, four hundred Langley computers received training on Tucker’s watch.”
In 1947, Tucker left civil service for a position as an aerodynamicist at Northrop Corporation, one of the nation’s leading aviation companies. Although she was no longer at Langley, her legacy continued to pave the way for female mathematicians, including the three African-American women whose inspiring stories are told in the movie “Hidden Figures.”
By Alyssa Bedrosian
Photography courtesy of Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives; Virginia Tucker at her desk at Langley in 1946
For more details, see Encyclopedia of UNCG History entry by University Archivist Erin Lawrimore.