Outthink hidden

Overlooked heroes from technology’s early days inspire tomorrow’s STEM leaders

20th Century Fox’s Hidden Figures tells the story of the Space Race from a new perspective, uncovering the contributions of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan.

Inspired by the achievements of these three women, IBM aims to shine a spotlight on hidden figures from science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to serve as role models for the next generation. Because when creative minds work with the best technology, we can outthink anything.

During the Space Race, NASA’s computers were women

Hidden Figures tells the unbelievable but true story of three African-American female mathematicians working at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. They wanted a chance to change their lives; while they were at it, they changed history.

These human “computers,” with help from an early mainframe provided by IBM, created computations that enabled John Glenn to become the first American astronaut to orbit the earth. The 1962 launch of the Mercury capsule Friendship 7 transformed the Space Race, became a symbol of American pride, and led to breakthroughs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics worldwide.

Watson works with NASA

IBM and NASA’s collaboration dates back to the Space Race, and they’re still working together today.

Beyond the movies: mobile app brings hidden figures to life

Contributions from creative men and women of all backgrounds are crucial to realizing our collective goals—and one way to encourage a more diverse future is to showcase the sometimes hidden, but never forgotten, diverse role models from our past.

The augmented reality (AR) app from IBM and the New York Times’ T Brand Studio celebrates early unsung heroes of innovation in STEM fields.

Read about some of these hidden heroes of STEM below, or download the T Brand Studio AR app to activate text, photos and video content about them. Use the app to scan the marker at the right to reveal a hidden figure in augmented reality. You can also use the app to find hidden figures at 150 geofenced locations throughout the United States.

Hidden Figures App

Outthing Hidden

Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson’s statue shows her connecting the earth and the moon through her breakthrough orbital and launch trajectory analyses.

Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson’s statue depicts her with a representation of airflow, reflecting her research on skin friction surrounding aircraft.

Dorothy Vaughan

Dorothy Vaughan’s statue shows her emerging from a stack of FORTRAN cards -the mainframe computer programming technology she taught herself.

Abraham Nemeth

Abraham Nemeth’s statue depicts him reading the Braille-based numerical writing system he created to give the visually disabled a way to participate in mathematical pursuits.

Bessie Blount Griffin

Bessie Blount Griffin’s statue shows her using both hands to draw two of her many medical inventions: a feeding device and a disposable emesis basin. Her self-taught ability to write with both hands, both feet and her mouth was a skill she taught to many amputee veterans.

Dr. Charles Drew

Dr. Charles Drew’s statue shows him surrounded by red blood cells flowing outwards from his laboratory test tube toward doctors and hospitals desperate for successfully preserved blood supplies.

Irmgard Flügge-Lotz’s

Irmgard Flügge-Lotz’s statue shows her emerging from a chart depicting the Lotz method. This method was used to calculate the values of lift increments and lift-curve slopes for wings with partial span flaps.

Maria Sibylla Merian

Maria Sibylla Merian’s statue depicts her creating one of her many pioneering illustrative studies of insect life-cycles, which are still recognized and relevant today.

Mary Walton

Mary Walton’s statue depicts her first patent, 237422 A, an “Improvement in the Construction of the Frame-Work and Bedding for the Track-Rails of Elevated Railroads and Bridges.”

Dr. Sarah Josephine Baker

Dr. Sarah Josephine Baker’s statue depicts her with the many influential books and policies she authored to help extend the life expectancy of children in New York City and throughout the U.S.

Women at IBM

Women have been working in tech jobs at IBM since the 1930s. They became vice presidents in the 1940s. IBM advocated for equal work for equal pay nearly 30 years before the Equal Pay Act of 1963. Fast-forward to 2017 and our CEO is a woman with a tech-focused plan to lead IBM forward.

At IBM, we work hard to actively create an inclusive culture that ensures the brightest minds from all backgrounds can contribute fully throughout our business.

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Visually impaired herself, she leads the way in creating technologies that change the way people with disabilities communicate.

Abraham Nemeth Scuplture

Abraham Nemeth was born congenitally blind on October 16, 1918 in Manhattan, and grew up in an immigrant Jewish family. He overcame his lack of sight with his strong desire to learn and eventually teach mathematics.

Nemeth struggled with arithmetic until high school, when a resource teacher who also taught math worked closely with him until he excelled in first-year algebra, and yet he was still discouraged from pursuing the study of mathematics in university.

While at Brooklyn College, Nemeth took as many elective math courses as he could. He quickly discovered how difficult it was to express mathematical notation in Braille.

He began improvising Braille symbols and methods, which were effective for his needs and consistent from one course to another. This system would become the foundation of the Nemeth Braille Code for Mathematics, a system for encoding mathematical and scientific notation using standard Braille cells for the visually impaired. To this day, the system has helped allow blind mathematicians and scientists to pursue careers, and accomplishments, in STEM.

Also an avid musician, in 1954 he wrote a dictionary of Braille music symbols.

Despite having a gift for learning and teaching, he struggled to get a job teaching mathematics until 1955, when he accepted a position at the University of Detroit as a mathematics instructor, eventually receiving tenure. While there, he implemented a graduate program in computer science.

Sara Josephine Baker Scuplture

Born in Poughkeepsie, New York, on November 15, 1873, Sara Josephine Baker went on to become one of America’s most accomplished physicians. She enrolled in the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary in 1894, where she failed only one course: “The Normal Child.” Upon retaking the course, she became fascinated with children’s healthcare.

In 1901 Baker joined the New York State Department of Health, and in 1907 she apprehended “Typhoid Mary” Mallon – the woman responsible for two separate typhoid fever epidemics in New York City. The following year, Baker was appointed as the first director of the newly formed Bureau of Child Hygiene.

In that position, she changed the way the world thought about public health. In the days before antibiotics and modern medicine, the chance of a child surviving an ailment was slim. So Baker pioneered and implemented preventative healthcare policies. By the time she retired in 1923, the infant mortality rate in New York City dropped from 144 per 1,000 live births to 66, one of the lowest in Western civilization at the time.

Baker is credited with creating the position of the school nurse, and inventing a disposable infant eyedropper kit for inserting sterile silver nitrate solution into the eyes of infants following childbirth; the solution was used at the time to prevent blindness. She was the first woman to earn a doctorate of public health in the United States. In addition to her work in healthcare, she was a very vocal suffragette.

Bessie Blount Griffin Scuplture

Bessie Blount Griffin’s statue shows her using both hands to draw two of her many medical inventions: a feeding device and a disposable emesis basin. Her self-taught ability to write with both hands, both feet and her mouth was a skill she taught to many amputee veterans.

Bessie Blount Griffin was born on November 24, 1914, in Hickory, Virginia. Her elementary school teacher would hit her on the knuckles because she was left-handed. So she taught herself to write with her right hand, mouth and feet. These skills would unexpectedly prove to be useful in her career.

Griffin became a physical therapist and worked mainly with injured World War II veterans. She taught handicapped veterans how to write with their mouths and feet. She also became an expert of handwriting and analysis and wrote technical literature on medical graphology, a method in which handwriting is used to diagnose physical and mental illness.

Working with handicapped people inspired some of Griffin’s most famous inventions, including a feeding tube that delivered liquefied food to patients, signaled by a bite-down mechanism, and a receptacle support that allowed patients to feed themselves. She was the first black woman to appear on the 1953 television show The Big Idea, where she was recognized for her inventions. Frustrated by the lack of interest in her inventions by the American Veteran’s Administration, Griffin gave away her rights to them to France stating, “a Black woman can invent something for the benefit of humankind.” In 1977, she went into law enforcement as a forensic scientist, an opportunity that was rare for African-American women in the United States.

Irmgard Lotz Scuplture

Irmgard Lotz was born in Hamelin, Germany, on July 16, 1903. During World War I, when her father was stationed in Belgium, Lotz supported her family by tutoring students in mathematics and Latin. She earned her doctorate in engineering in 1929 and started working as a junior research engineer at Aerodynamische Versuchsanstalt in Göttingen, Germany.

In 1931, Lotz solved a tricky problem for calculating the span wise (wingtip to wingtip) distribution of a wing’s lifting force. This became known as the Lotz Method. In 1938 she married a civil engineer named Wilhelm Flügge and changed her last name to Flügge-Lotz. There were obstacles to career advancement for her husband due to his anti-Nazi views, and Irmgard had no opportunity for an academic career simply because of her gender.

During World War II, the couple evacuated Berlin, eventually landing in America. Wilhelm was given the position of professor of engineering at Stanford University, while Irmgard was only given the title of “lecturer of engineering and mechanics and research supervisor,” which came with similar responsibilities. It wasn’t until 1960 that she became Stanford’s first female engineering professor. There, she worked on pioneering what she called “discontinuous automatic control,” the foundation for automatic on-off aircraft control systems in jets.

In 1970, Lotz became the first woman to receive a fellowship of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Mary Walton Scuplture

Very little is known about the early life of Mary Walton. She was described in an 1879 Evening Star article, “The Woman Who Stops That Noise,” as an elderly widow with silver hair. She lived in Manhattan in a time when there was an elevated railway system in the city. These trains made a lot of noise, and the New York City Metropolitan Railroad hired none other than Thomas Edison to solve the issue for nearby residents…but he failed to provide a solution. Walton, a Manhattan resident who experienced the noise firsthand, sought to take on the issue herself. She experimented in her basement by constructing model railroad tracks, and then cradled them in wooden boxes with sand, tar and cotton to absorb the vibrations that produced the clanking sounds. She was allowed to test her method on a length of the elevated railway and proved it worked. Walton sold her invention in 1879 and was, in her own words, compensated “handsomely” by the Metropolitan Elevated Railroad Company.

Walton had another invention patented in 1879. This one would go beyond the neighborhoods of New York and spread throughout the world. She created a system to reduce smoke pollution by diverting it and trapping it in water tanks, where it could be then flushed into the sewage system.

Maria Sibylla Merian Scuplture

Born in what is now Frankfurt, Germany, Maria Sibylla Merian went on to become one of the biggest contributors to the field of entomology, through her highly accurate illustrations. Born on April 2, 1647, Merian was a descendant of the Frankfurt branch of the Swiss Merian family, founders of one of Europe’s largest publishing houses in the 17th century.

She learned how to illustrate from her stepfather, who had been a student of the still life painter Georg Flegel. Cut off from the universities and academies of men, Merian was a self-taught naturalist working out of her kitchen. Instead of following the tradition of illustrating specimens lifelessly pinned down, Merian depicted insects actively transforming through stages of metamorphosis. She studied for eight years and was then awarded a grant by the city of Amsterdam to travel to South America with her daughter. At the time, receiving this type of grant was an honor only men could expect to receive. Since the purpose of her trip was entirely scientific, Merian could be considered the first person on record to go on a scientific expedition.

Malaria caused her to return to Europe after two years. Once back, she published her major work, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, in 1705. Her observation and documentation on the metamorphosis of the butterfly have now enshrined her in scientific history.

Charles Drew Scuplture

Charles Drew was born on June 3, 1904, in Washington, D.C. He experienced discrimination and racism during his time at Amherst College, where he was one of only thirteen African-Americans in the student body. Very few medical schools accepted black students, so upon graduation from Amherst he attended McGill University in Montreal, where he graduated second in his class in 1933.

While working as an instructor in pathology at Howard University, a historically black college, Drew completed his surgical residency at Freedmen’s Hospital: the only black hospital in Washington, D.C., and the only hospital that would grant Drew hospital privileges. Drew spent two years at Columbia University, where he investigated blood preservation. During this fellowship, when he was the hospital’s first African-American resident, he discovered that by dehydrating blood plasma and reconstituting it with water, blood could be preserved for longer periods of time. When the United States entered the war in December 1941, Drew was tasked by the American Red Cross with organizing a large-scale blood drive to support the war effort. Drew used his findings to assist British troops during World War II by directing Blood for Britain, which was the world’s first major blood bank project.

Drew then returned to Howard University to lead the department of surgery. Between 1941 and 1950, he trained more than half of the black surgeons certified by the American Board of Surgery. In 1950, Drew’s life was cut short when he was involved in a roadside accident. The National Medical Association posthumously awarded Drew the Distinguished Service Medal.

Dorothy Vaughan Scuplture

Dorothy Vaughan was born on September 20, 1910, in Kansas City, Missouri. Her family moved to West Virginia, and after graduating high school in 1925, Vaughan enrolled in Wilberforce University. She earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1929.

In 1943, Vaughan began working at the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, part of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (later NASA). “Human computers,” as she and her colleagues were called, were expected to work a six-day week, including holidays. Her primary responsibilities included calculating performance testing of drag and lift on various aircraft. In 1958, Vaughan was made a supervisor at a time when there were very few female, or African-American, supervisors.

Though African-Americans could find employment opportunities at Langley, the working conditions were segregated. In fact, many of the white “human computers” had no idea there was a group of African-American mathematicians working in the West Section.

After the introduction of nonhuman computers, Vaughan became one of the earliest computer programmers, achieving proficiency in FORTRAN and other coding languages. Throughout her career, Vaughan helped many notable “human computers” under her supervision, including Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson during their time at NASA.

Katherine Coleman Johnson Scuplture

Katherine Coleman Johnson was born on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Johnson enrolled in high school at the age of 10 and graduated at 14, finishing her bachelor’s degree in science by the age of 18. She graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor of science degree in mathematics and French. At the age of 20, Johnson became the first African-American woman to attend West Virginia’s graduate school. Despite her prodigious talent, it took Johnson seven years to find employment in the field of mathematics. In 1953, she joined the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, which was part of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which later became NASA.

Johnson was part of the Space Orbital Mechanics branch, serving in the role of “human computer.” She specialized in geometry and calculating launch trajectories. Johnson calculated both the flight path for the first space mission and the trajectory of the first orbital mission and played an instrumental role in numerous space flight missions, including the first crewed American flights in space, Apollo 11 and Apollo 13. During the Friendship 7 mission in 1962, Johnson even checked the calculations provided by computers to ensure accuracy.

Johnson retired from NASA in 1986 after 33 years. In 2017, a building on the Langley campus will be opened in her honor: The Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility.

Mary Jackson Scuplture

Mary Jackson was born in Hampton, Virginia, on April 9, 1921. She graduated from high school and attended the Hampton Institute, where she earned a bachelor of science degree in mathematics and physical sciences in 1942.

NASA hired her in 1951 as a research mathematician, also known as a “human computer.” By 1958 she had fought her way through the ranks to become an aerospace engineer specializing in boundary layers, that is, the layer of air referred to as “skin friction” surrounding an aircraft. She spent most of her time on a catwalk during wind tunnel tests, causing her some hearing loss.

After 30 years, working first as a computer and then as an engineer, Jackson became the equal opportunity specialist within the human resources department. Eventually, Jackson served as the federal women’s program coordinator in the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, where she worked to improve employment opportunities for women by developing specific training programs.