All the Computers Were Women

computers-women

By Elizabeth Hamilton

Midway through our interview at her home in Arcadia, California, Susan Finley ’58 says, somewhat embarrassedly, “You won’t believe it, but my daughter-in-law called me the other day to tell me that I have a Wikipedia page! I can’t imagine who set it up.”

Finley is genuinely surprised about her celebrity; as she sees it, she has just been doing her job all these years. Since 1958, that job has evolved from “computer,” to software tester, to programmer, to subsystem engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on some of the center’s most important space missions—making her the longest-serving woman employee in NASA history.

Originally from Central California, Finley attended Scripps on a scholarship. She pursued a major in art, intending to become an architect, but regarded herself as a terrible artist—at the end of her junior year, she dropped out to avoid having to complete a senior thesis project. But she was also interested in math, and while a student, she worked for a professor in the math department at Claremont Men’s College (Claremont McKenna College became coed in 1976), correcting student papers and helping to collect and analyze data. Looking for a job after she left Scripps “is where Scripps really came in,” Finley recalls. “From my time at Scripps, I knew I liked math, so I applied to an engineering company as a typist. I couldn’t type very well, but Icould type.”

She did not get the typist job. In fact, Finley is pretty sure she flunked the typing test. “I took the typing test, and then it was quitting time, and so they said, ‘Well, come back tomorrow.’ And so I came back the next morning, and they said, ‘That job is already gone, but do you like numbers?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I like numbers much more than typing!’ So they said, ‘Would you like to be a computer?’”

So, for her first job after college, Finley was a computer. She and one other woman, also a computer, worked in a room alongside 40 thermodynamic engineers, all men. Whenever an engineer needed a calculation done, he would give it to Finley or her coworker to execute on a Friden electromechanical calculator—essentially a giant adding machine. Finley would set up the equation on the Friden and then plug in the numbers the engineer wished to test. During the 1950s and early 1960s, this kind of computing was considered “women’s work,” although it was higher in the chain of command than secretarial work. “All the computers were women,” Finley recalls. “But I never had any problem at all. I was always treated as an equal—and I know the secretaries weren’t.”

In 1957, Finley married. She and her husband settled in Arcadia, and she began looking for a job closer to home. In January 1958, Finley was hired as a computer by JPL; she started working there two days before Explorer 1, America’s first satellite, was launched into orbit. At JPL, the team of women computers was much larger. “They had a whole separate room for computers, and I worked there for the first year, on many different kinds of projects. The women I worked with had different backgrounds—some hadn’t gone to college at all. You had to be good at what you were doing, or they’d get rid of you, but math was not a prerequisite.” Finley was first tasked with calculating trajectories for rocket launches.

Over the years, as technology evolved, Finley’s role changed. Digital computers replaced the electronic calculators, and she learned the computer language FORTRAN on the job, designing and executing the hand calculations and FORTRAN programs that helped successfully launch satellites, point antennae, and send spacecraft throughout the solar system and into deep space. The demographics of the workplace also changed. First the staff of computers shrank, and then the need for them disappeared altogether as engineers learned to be programmers, too. Though Finley was able to successfully adapt to these changes, she acknowledges, “The director of JPL told me that I would never be hired now, as I have no degree.”

Over the years, Finley worked on landmark programs including Voyager, Mariner, and Viking. Her most memorable project came during the early 1980s, when she was writing software for the Deep Space Network (DSN), which assists in the collection of data from U.S. and foreign interplanetary spacecraft. The DSN was asked to facilitate a Russian project called the Vega program, which, among other objectives, sought to probe the atmosphere of Venus by dropping a balloon there. Because of Cold War politics, U.S. calculations had to be relayed through the French. Finley volunteered to help. “At that time my role was software engineer, but I didn’t know anything about engineering. Why they thought I could do it, I don’t know.”

Her job was to write a program that would point antennae at the Russian spacecraft as it dropped the balloon, synthesizing elaborate calculations into a set of commands to detect the balloon and inform the French and U.S. teams whether the mission had been successful. “When the Venus balloon got dropped off, I got to be in the control room at JPL—at that point nobody was controlling it, of course, we were all just watching—and when we got to see the little blip on the screen, I jumped up and down. It was so exciting that the balloon had gotten there, and it was transmitting and we were receiving it!”

In fact, her efforts were so successful that the team asked her to continue to work on the project, this time to figure out how to successfully point the antennae at the spacecraft as it continued on to Halley’s Comet for a flyby. She remembers, “I told the team, ‘If I’m going to have to do the antennae pointing each time, I’m going to have to have somebody check my work, and I want a better parking spot.’ And I got it, for that year!”

More recently, Finley assisted with the launch of the rover Curiosity, helping to write the program that signaled its successful 2012 landing on Mars. In order to communicate with mission control, the rover broadcasts a series of tones; Finley helped develop and run the software that interpreted the tones Curiosity sent as it swiftly descended to the surface of the planet. The process of writing that software was also complex; for example, Finley needed to compensate for the Doppler effect—the change in frequency of a sound wave for an observer moving relative to its source—so that the tones could be properly detected as the rover fell.

Finley admits that she has never owned a home computer, though she now has a tablet for reading and keeping up with her grandchildren on social media. She still loves numbers—her kitchen table is piled high with Sudoku puzzle books—and for now, she is still happy working at JPL. “I’m having a fabulous time,” she says. “You should work as long as it’s enjoyable, and it’s still enjoyable.” When asked whether she has any plans for retirement, she pauses. “I never did get to take physics. That’s the first class I’m going to take.”

 

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