Hidden Figures – The Human Computer

Hidden Figures – The Human Computer

April 3rd, 2017

Last week my wife took me to see a film that had caught her interest, the film is called “Hidden Figures”.   I won’t spoil your enjoyment of this excellent film by disclosing the plot but I would like to share a few thoughts that it provoked.

It grabbed my interest straight away because it is set at the point in history when man first ventured into space and coincidentally my life began.  More pertinent to the Wilde Analysis blog is it is also the point in time when NASA purchased their first IBM computer to do the complex trajectory and orbit calculations that up to that time had been done by hand.

Perhaps hard to believe in this age of ubiquitous computers but the first man in space (Russian, not American incidentally) was put there and more importantly brought back again without the aid of computer simulation.

My own career started some 20 years on from the time where the film is set but computers were still not the norm, most of the complex calculations in structural dynamics and thermal loading were carried out using pencils and graph paper.


** Spoiler Alert **

For me the most interesting scene in the film was when John Glenn agreed to go on his first orbital flight only when the calculations from the new IBM computer had been confirmed by hand calculations by the human “computer” who had carried out the calculations before the electronic computer arrived.

The lesson perhaps for all of us using computer simulation these days that a key part of using it well and safely is understanding the maths and having a good idea of what you expect the answer to be before you press the button.

Chris Down, Business Development Manager

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