5

CNN's NASA will name its headquarters after Mary W. Jackson, the agency's first African American female engineer and NASA news item NASA Names Headquarters After ‘Hidden Figure’ Mary W. Jackson include a photograph of NASA engineer Mary Jackson, and that wikipedia page includes the original photo shown below.

From here:

Description: Mary Jackson working at NASA Langley

Date: 2 June 1977, 08:00:55

Source: https://www.nasa.gov/content/mary-jackson-biography

Author: NASA

Clicking the image shows it in the original size from that NASA link.

Question: Is this a commercially built computer, or is this an assemblage of several pieces of equipment custom built somehow? I'm looking at the patch blocks behind Ms. Jackson, are those seen in computers of the mid 1970's?

Mary W. Jackson at NASA Langley

  • 8
    What says it is a computer? Reading the biography in the link I'd guess it is (part of) a wind tunnel control panel. Probably with possibility to see the measurements made of the unit tested. – UncleBod Jun 25 at 10:54
  • 1
    @UncleBob that's a fair point! The patch panels and parallel groups of cables reminded me of computers I'd seen from that era (or before) and I believe I can see "digital output" written on one, but now that does seem rather thin evidence. If no answers are posted recognizing this as a computer are posted in a day or so I may move this to Space SE and ask "What is this?" – uhoh Jun 25 at 11:33
  • 4
    Not all computers were digital, either. – another-dave Jun 25 at 11:45
  • 6
    I do not understand the vote to close. The question is essentially "is this a 1970s computer?" Okay, the answer ends up being "no", but so does the answer to the question Does this computer have a steering wheel?, which was not voted close. In either question, a cursory glance may make you think you are looking at a computer, but careful study reveals it is not a computer. – DrSheldon Jun 25 at 21:07
  • 2
    The upper right-hand cab is labelled "data systems overtemp and power shutdown", which doesn't tell us much. Below that is a panel of "balance and sensitivity" controls. Too bad we can't read the cover of the manual on the desk. – another-dave Jun 26 at 1:24
9
  1. NASA's Langley Research Center primarily performs research. It has more than 40 wind tunnels.

  2. Mary Jackson worked with the wind tunnels at Langley, both before and after obtaining her engineering degree.

    In 1953, she began working for engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki in the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. [...] In 1958, the same year that NACA became NASA, she was promoted to aerospace engineer, making history as the organization’s first black female engineer. [...] As an engineer, Jackson remained at the Langley facility, but moved over to work at the Theoretical Aerodynamics Branch of the Subsonic-Transonic Aerodynamics Division. Her work focused on analyzing data produced from those wind tunnel experiments as well as actual flight experiments.

    source

  3. Analyzing the picture shows a large number of analog elements, especially ones that would be useful for recording and analyzing data.

    • Along the left edge of the picture are one or two rows of knobs. Surrounding them appears to be some digital readouts (possibly showing the knob settings).
    • There are about a dozen analog meters below the knobs. Two more analog meters appear on the right-most rack.
    • The three racks to the right of Jackson each have strip chart recorders. The left and middle recorders retain their charts inside the cabinet, but the chart from the right-most rack spools outside, down to the desk in the lower-right corner of the picture. A fourth rack immediately to her left may also be a strip chart recorder.
    • There aren't enough switches or rows of lights to be a mainframe computer.

I believe that the picture portrays a recording room for one of the wind tunnels. Jackson's job was to analyze the results of wind tunnel tests, so she would have spent a lot of time there.

It's not a mainframe.

| improve this answer | |
  • Okay this is great! Thank you for the thorough analysis and conclusive answer. – uhoh Jun 25 at 20:52
8

The photo shows the control room for the Eight-Foot Transonic Pressure Tunnel at NASA Langley. The panels shown don't belong any specific system but rather are standard 19-inch racks that can be fitted with whatever is needed at a particular time.

Looking at the document on the desk at the right of the image1 we can make out the name of the facility.

Enhanced close-up of document
Enhanced close-up of document.
Source: NASA via Flickr

Here's a photo of the control room taken on a different date (1995) with part of the area covered by the photo in the question at the far left. Although the equipment fitted is different, the racks, desk surface, and ceiling are clearly the same:

View of control room as it was in 1995
Source: United States Library of Congress

1 A high-resolution version of the image in the question can be found here.

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    Good work! This seems like the definitive answer. – another-dave Jun 26 at 11:00
  • 1
    Thank you for the frighteningly thorough research and answer! – uhoh Jun 26 at 11:51
  • 1
    @uhoh Glad I could help. – Alex Hajnal Jun 26 at 12:28
2

(This is more of an addition to DrSheldons answer)

Is this a commercially built computer,

Most likely not.

or is this an assemblage of several pieces of equipment custom built somehow?

I'd say custom build. Also not really a computer, but a control or recording station

I'm looking at the patch blocks behind Ms. Jackson,

These are plug boards holding wires making job specific connections. There are two of the smaller (right) one laying on the table in the lower right, behind the manual or report. One with some plugs.

The Manual looks quite like a NASA or US government in general paper of the 60s.

Also, going by the labelling, these do not seam like programs, more like configuring a set of connections (data path) between sensors and recording equipment.

are those seen in computers of the mid 1970's

No, most definitely not. In computing they were used with punch card machinery and calculators. IBM's 604/605 of 1948 was about the last generation of punch card fed calculators using plug boards, as well as IBM's 305 RAMAC of 1956, which eventually may be the first and last generation of computers, similar to what we today call a computer, that were plug board programmed. In addition plug boards have been used a few more years in peripherals like card punches, sorters and printers for configuration/programming. But all of that vanished during the 1960s.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.