Annie Jean Easley (1933-2011) was one of the first computer programmers at NASA, the US government’s space agency. She worked on the Centaur rocket, ozone studies and batteries for electric cars, among other things.
The Centaur rocket is still in use. It has put up many of the communication and weather satellites in orbit. It has sent unmanned spacecrafts – the Surveyors, Vikings, Voyagers, Cassini-Huygens and New Horizons – to the Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto and beyond.
In 1955 she started work at a US government research lab near Cleveland, Ohio, at what is now known as the John Glenn Research Center. It became part of NASA in 1958.
She started work not as a computer programmer but as a computer in the Computer Services Division.
A computer used to be a person. She – computers were almost always a she – did calculations for engineers and scientists. When machine computers started to become common, they became the first programmers. Notice how that runs counter to current ideas of women as being bad with numbers and machines.
Easley programmed in SOAP (an assembly language) and FORTRAN. Among the computers she programmed were the IBM 650, IBM 704 and IBM System/360.
But it was not all was sweetness and light:
- After 34 years she never rose above the level of a worker bee, almost certainly because the White men who ran things came to certain unfounded conclusions about her because she was a Black woman.
- They would not pay for her work-related education at first, something they did as a matter of course for White men.
- She once found herself cut out of a picture of a machine she had helped to make!
The day she started there, the number of Black workers increased 33%: from three to four – out of 2,500 workers!
In time she became an Equal Employment Opportunity officer, looking into complaints of NASA being unfair to workers because of race, sex or age.
Something her mother told her over and over again back in Jim Crow Birmingham, Alabama where she grew up:
“You can be anything you want to. It doesn’t matter what you look like, what your size is, what your color is. You can be anything you want to, but you do have to work at it.”
Easley lived by that. From age 15 onwards she never let her sex, race or age limit her ideas of what she could do. If people stood in her way, she worked around them instead of giving up.
She retired in 1989 and became president of the Greater Cleveland Ski Council for three years. She did not learn to ski till her 40s. Later she became a Century 21 real estate agent. She was also a tutor, something she had been doing since her Birmingham days when she helped Blacks to pass the “literacy” test needed to register to vote.
– Abagond, 2016.
- Welcome to Black Women’s History Month 2016!
- NASA spacecraft:
- Jim Crow
- Birmingham, Alabama
- The “twice as good” speech
- Bessie Coleman