Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures

The Untold True Story of Four African-American Women Who Helped Launch Our Nation Into Space

Book - 2016
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Explores the previously uncelebrated but pivotal contributions of NASA's African-American women mathematicians to America's space program, describing how Jim Crow laws segregated them from their white counterparts despite their groundbreaking successes.
Publisher: New York, NY : Harper, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, [2016]
Edition: Young readers' edition, First edition
ISBN: 9780062662385
Branch Call Number: J510.9252 L5156H 2016
Characteristics: 231 pages : illustrations, portraits ; 22 cm
Additional Contributors: Shetterly, Margot Lee Hidden figures


From Library Staff

Shetterly relates the untold story of World War II-era African American female mathematicians hired as “human computers,” running calculations and testing theories that helped advance the American aviation industry.

From the critics

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May 17, 2020

This personal history/memoir provides a sharp contrast between the insidious segregation laws of the State of Virginia and the rising integration of the federal aeronautical research facility in Virginia. From time to time I felt that the author was writing down to the reader; and there was no attempt to present any of the science or mathematics of aeronautics (by diagrams and graphs). This book would have benefited from some photographs of the female mathematicians and their workplaces (rather than having to watch the docudrama DVD). The author provided an extensive bibliography, endnotes, and an index.

Sep 19, 2019

How is it this story is only recently being revealed? I hope teachers everywhere are sharing this story with their students.
Hidden Figures tells of the significant part several very sharp, numerically gifted black female mathematicians played in the early accomplishments of NASA. They were known as human computers in those days. And they were integral to NASA's success. These trailblazers were so much more than number-crunchers ... they were role models on so many fronts.
I feel like I should have known about these remarkable women sooner than 2012. And after reading this book, I can't help but feel a bit cheated that this info wasn't more common knowledge. I listened to the audio format. Very Recommended.

IndyPL_SteveB Sep 06, 2019

Fascinating true story of the black female mathematicians who filled in for men at Langley Aeronautical Laboratory in World War II and went on to be part of the backbone of NASA. Before 1946, a “computer” was strictly a job title – the person who computes. When ENIAC came on line, it was called an “electronic computer”, to distinguish it from “human” computers.

Once President Roosevelt issued an executive order requiring that federal jobs be open to African-Americans, the managers at Langley were able to hire female math majors from the historically black colleges. Shetterly follows the lives of three of these women, Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Goble Johnson, the most famous of the three. The black women computers eventually made progress as NASA was created. Many of them became engineers, wrote research papers, and contributed high level work to the math of suborbital flights, orbital flights, and the moon landing. Katherine Johnson was especially important in that, as a near-genius mathematician. She helped put together all of the calculations for the sub-orbital flight, single-handedly worked-out the calculations for John Glenn’s takeoff and entry, and was instrumental in developing the software for the moon landing. It’s a great story and the basis for the movie *Hidden Figures.*

JessicaGma Sep 05, 2019

I can see why they made a film out of this 'based on true events' book, because it's a really interesting story that should be shared widely, especially when there's much lamented about the missing girls in STEM careers...These women were super smart and essential to the space race. It also provides a solid context to working in the South. An essential read for anyone interested in science.

Aug 26, 2019

Tea & Talk Book Club / September 2017

Jun 24, 2019

Very good, enlightening, heartbreaking, amazing. More detail, and wider sweep of 20cent than movie
G has read; Ken part way ..Get again for him to finish

Jun 07, 2019

I expected to really like this book since I was thrilled with the movie. Unfortunately, I found that the book was more like a textbook than a novel and I found that the author was also trying to write about all aspects of the struggles of the American Blacks in the 40s and 50s which, while very relevant and important topics to document, were, for me, too distracting from the so-called focus of the book. I was not able to finish this.

Fantastic book. It's a shame this history has been obscured for so long. I am not really a fan of the anecdotal style, though I understand this is how Miss Lee obtained a lot of her information, so perhaps it is fitting.

May 17, 2019


Feb 24, 2019

Shetterly tells a very complicated story spanning many decades very nicely. The book is chock full of history and science, woven into the lives of the incredible black women computers who did great work to make great things happen in very difficult circumstances. Easy and quick to read. The movie is better in many ways, more powerful in the telling of the racism facts, but necessarily dropping a lot of the science and earlier history of the computers' work on aviation in WWII. Read the book and enjoy the movie but don't expect them to the the same.

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CMLibrary_gjd_0 Oct 05, 2017

pg 170; "Eighty percent of the world's population is colored" the NACA's chief legal council Paul Dembling had written in a 1956 file memo. "In trying to provide leadership in world events, it is necessary for this country to indicate to the world that we practice equality for all within this country."
do we never learn or what? gjd

pg 196 (re: Soapbox Derby) Harder than getting the message, perhaps was acting on it when you got it. Entering the derby was tantamount to believing you had a shot at victory, as much (or more) or the parents as for the racer. The electrified fence of segregation and the centuries of socks it delivered so effectively circumscribed the lives of American blacks that even after the current was turned off, the idea of climbing the fence inspired dread.

May 08, 2017

The speed of sound, about 761 miles per hour at sea level in dry air at 59 degrees Fahrenheit, varied depending on temperature, altitude, and humidity. It was long thought to be a physical limit on the maximum speed of an object moving through the air. As an airplane flying at sea level in dry air approached Mach 1, or 100 percent of the local speed of sound, air molecules in front of the flying plane piled up and compressed, forming a shock wave, the same phenomenon that caused the noise associated with the crack of a bull whip or the firing of a bullet. ... either the plane or the pilot or both would disintegrate from the force of the shock waves. But on October 14, 1947, pilot Chuck Yeager, flying over the Mojave Desert in an NACA-developed experimental research plane called the Bell X-1, pierced the sound barrier for the first time in history, a fact that was corroborated by the female computers on the ground ...

May 08, 2017

Their designations reflected their use: fighters—also called pursuit planes—were assigned letters F or P: for example, the Chance Vought F4U Corsair or the North American P-51 Mustang. The letter C identified a cargo plane like the Douglas C-47 Skytrain, built to transport military goods and troops and, eventually, commercial passengers. B was for bomber, like the mammoth and perfectly named B-29 Superfortress. And X identified an experimental plane still under development, designed for the purpose of research and testing. Planes lost their X designation—the B-29 was the direct descendant of the XB-29—once they went into production. The same evolutionary forces prevailed to replicate a particular model’s positive traits and breed out excess drag and instability. The P-51A Mustang was a good plane; the P-51B and P-51C were great planes. After several rounds of refinement in the Langley wind tunnels, the Mustang achieved its apotheosis with the P-51D.

May 08, 2017

There were black jobs, and there were good black jobs. Sorting in the laundry, making beds in white folks’ houses, stemming in the tobacco plant—those were black jobs. Owning a barbershop or a funeral home, working in the post office, or riding the rails as a Pullman porter— those were good black jobs. Teacher, preacher, doctor, lawyer—now those were very good black jobs, bringing stability and the esteem that accompanied formal training.
“Men of every creed and every race, wherever they lived in the world” were entitled to “Four Freedoms”: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear, Roosevelt said, addressing the American people in his 1941 State of the Union address.
In the 1930s, just over a hundred women in the United States worked as professional mathematicians. Employers openly discriminated against Irish and Jewish women with math degrees; the odds of a black woman encountering work in the field hovered near zero.

May 08, 2017

Of course, while moving the air over the object was similar to flying through the air, it wasn’t identical, so one of the first concepts Dorothy had to master was the Reynolds number, a bit of mathematical jujitsu that measured how closely the performance of a wind tunnel came to mimicking actual flight. Mastery of the Reynolds number, and using that knowledge to build wind tunnels that successfully simulated real-world conditions, was the key to the NACA’s success. Running the tunnels during the war presented yet another logistical challenge, as the local power company rationed electricity. The NACA nuts ran their giant turbines into the wee hours if necessary, engineers pressing the machines for answers to their research questions like night owls on the hunt for mice. Residents who lived near Langley complained about the sleep-disrupting roar of the tunnels.

May 08, 2017

“Tu m’entends tout, n’est-ce pas?” the countess inquired, seeing the reserved Negro maid paying close attention to her every bon mot. Katherine nodded sheepishly.
“Katherine should finish the report,” Skopinski said to Pearson. “She’s done most of the work anyway.” Henry Pearson had the reputation of being less than supportive of the advancement of female employees, but whether it was circumstance, the triumph of hard work over bias, or an incorrectly deserved reputation, it was on his watch that Katherine put the finishing touches on her first research report on the Friday after Thanksgiving 1959. “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite over a Selected Earth Position” went through ten months of editorial meetings, analysis, recommendations, and revisions before publication in September 1960—the first report to come out of Langley’s Aerospace Mechanics Division (or its predecessor, the Flight Research Division) by a female author.

May 08, 2017

Being part of a Black First was a powerful symbol, she knew just as well as anyone, and she embraced her son’s achievement with delight. But she also knew that the best thing about breaking a barrier was that it would never have to be broken again.
Achievement through hard work, social progress through science, possibility through belief . . . when Levi reached out and took hold of the first-place trophy, Mary witnessed, in one proud and emotional moment, the embodiment of so much that she held dear.
Officially, the derby was the boy’s show, from building the car to crouching inside it on race day. Parents (usually fathers; Mary was one of the very rare derby moms) were supposed to stand back and offer only advice, but it was usually hard to tell who savored the engineering project more, the parent or the child.

May 08, 2017

The early 1960s were an inflection point in the history of computing, a dividing line between the time when computers were human and when they were inanimate, when a computing job was handed off to a room full of women sitting at desks topped with $500 mechanical calculating machines and when a computing job was processed by a room-sized computer that cost in excess of $1 million. Dorothy Vaughan was keenly aware of that undulating invisible line that separated the past from the future. At fifty years old and many years into her second career, she reinvented herself as a computer programmer. Engineers still made the pilgrimage to her desk, asking for her help with their computing. Now, instead of assigning the task to one of her girls, Dorothy made a date with the IBM 704 computer that occupied the better part of an entire room in the basement of Building 1268, the room cooled to polar temperatures to keep the machine’s vacuum tubes from overheating.

May 08, 2017

Sending a man into space was a damn tall order, but it was the part about returning him safely to Earth that kept Katherine Johnson and the rest of the space pilgrims awake at night.
As the rocket blasted from the launchpad and accelerated into the sky toward maximum velocity, the aerodynamic pressure on the capsule also increased to a point known as “max Q.” If the capsule wasn’t strong enough to withstand the forces acting on it at max Q, it could simply explode. A Republican senator from Pennsylvania called the Mercury capsule-Atlas rocket pairing “a Rube Goldberg device on top of a plumber’s nightmare.
On April 12, 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became in one fell swoop the first human in space and the first human to orbit Earth.

May 08, 2017

“Get the girl to check the numbers,” said the astronaut. If she says the numbers are good, he told them, I’m ready to go.
The space age and television were coming into their own at the same time. NASA was acutely aware that the task before them wasn’t only about making history but also about making a myth, adding a gripping new chapter to the American narrative that worshiped hard work, ingenuity, and the triumph of democracy.
As a seasoned test pilot, Glenn knew that the only way to remove all danger from the mission was to never leave Earth.
Everything rested upon the brain busters’ mastery of the laws of physics and mathematics. The mission was colossal in its scope, but it required both extreme precision and the utmost accuracy.

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Add Age Suitability
May 19, 2020

black_panther_1839 thinks this title is suitable for between the ages of 8 and 99

Dec 10, 2019

ClaraShepard thinks this title is suitable for All Ages

blue_pig_1144 Sep 27, 2017

blue_pig_1144 thinks this title is suitable for 8 years and over

Mar 07, 2017

tml387 thinks this title is suitable for between the ages of 8 and 12


Add a Summary
Dec 10, 2019

Primarily following the lives of Dorothy Vaughan (1910-2008) and Katherine Goble Johnson (b.1918), Hidden Figures traces the initial creation of jobs for black women as mathematicians when it was a stop-gap war measure intended to fix deficiencies in the American war aviation industry during World War II, to these women’s narrow escape of the defense spending reduction’s chopping block, to the birth of the space race. Along the way, it highlights the racism that kept these women down, the civil rights movement occurring in the background of their work, and the occasional advocates they found in their superiors at Langley. By its end, Hidden Figures traces a 50 year span, discussing race & racism, class & economic mobility, and sexism, as well as leaving a sense of hope that these figures may slowly be brought to light, and their stories permanently added to the halls we fill with American legends like John Glenn, Gene Kranz, and James Webb.

Sep 29, 2016

The quick marketing description of Hidden Figures touts this book as the story of the black women mathematicians of NASA, who helped put men on the moon. But Margot Lee Shetterly’s narrative begins long before that. During World War II, women were entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers, pulled into the vacuum left by men departing to serve in the military. Many of the black women who would go on to play significant roles in the space race began their careers in the segregated West Computing department of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) on the Virginia Peninsula. In those days, computers were people, not machines, and the insatiable demand for bright mathematical minds cracked the door for black women to enter the agency that would one day become the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).


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