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Hidden Figures' IBM Story

Source: Hidden Figures, 20th Century Fox

JANUARY 7, 2017

Hidden Figures, produced by 20th Century Fox (FOX), is a singularly impressive film that resolves the important difference between intelligent inculcation versus common educational system failures. Whereby advanced manifestations of simple concepts may sometimes seem challenging, often the basics required to learn them are very simple if taught effectively.

For instance computer coding may seem complicated if you have not studied it, and look at an advanced lesson without knowing the basics. However for the future computer coding is a valuable ability.

Some might think learning computer coding is impossible. However, if asked whether you could open a file, transcribe a few lines from an instruction manual, click a button and drag an arrow, most people would actually find it easy. (Example for Apple computer users: "Getting Started with XCode 8 Development" and "Build Your First App" takes about 30 minutes to learn the building blocks of coding.)

The process is simply not part of the common curriculum in several educational systems, though top level tech businesses like Apple (AAPL), Microsoft (MSFT) and Facebook (FB) have been working to change that with the mantra: "Learn to code." Together these major companies work with groups like to encourage more people across the world to give coding a go.

USA Today Reports "Google teams with Hidden Figures"

According to USA Today's article: Google teams with 'Hidden Figures' to bust stereotypes:

Google is showing Hidden Figures to students across the country and it has created a coding project around the film's uplifting message to change popular perception about what computer science is and what computer scientists look like. - USA Today January 6, 2017

USA Today (GCI) links to for a simple lesson about coding.

While learning to code is by no means any sort of golden ticket, the ability offers valuable knowledge. The same way the basics of cooking do not automatically make a person an Iron Chef. The basics provide the ability to understand.

Hidden Figures is an important story relative to the world of business for this very reason. Because everyday successful businesses are required to solve problems. Generally problems can not be solved if they are not understood.

Hidden Figures: Code Central To Business

The Hidden Figures story was written by Margot Lee Shetterly (who founded The Human Computer Project) about three NASA employees: Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), a mathematician, Mary Jackson (Janelle MonĂ¡e), an engineer, and Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) a technology specialist. To NASA they're human computers.

In one scene a fleet of NASA employees, the human computers, walk into the newly established International Business Machines' (IBM) computer room. To effectively bring the space program's new supercomputer: The IBM 7090, to life.

Source: Hidden Figures, 20th Century Fox

Within the film what might seem mundane: People walking into a room, is poignant because of the struggles encountered by NASA's human computers, simply called computers, or according to the film "colored computers" as this was a time of racial segregation. Though NASA's team of computers simply walked into the computer room, in terms of computer science history it was a moment of phenomenal historic importance.

The result of NASA's human computers teaming with the space agency's IBM 7090 computer was the difference between success and failure. For NASA's astronauts this was obviously very important. While by today's standard the iPhone goes about 10,000 times faster than the IBM 7090 which was so large it required its own room.

Business Takes Flight

59 years earlier, December, 1903, a similarly historic human computational effort took place to attempt a powered flight.

Source: Formula Used By Wright Brothers For First Engine Powered Flight

On December 17, 1903 that computational effort paid off, for one of the most amazing feats in history. When the Wright Flyer I flew an astonishing 10 feet off the ground, a distance of 175 feet, at a top speed of 6.8 miles per hour.

Source: Wright Brothers' First Engine Powered Flight, December 17, 1903

By comparison the Mercury-Atlas 6 Program's Friendship 7 shuttle, piloted by Col. John Glenn, charted a 7 orbit course around the earth at 17,544 miles per hour. Whereas the Wright Brothers' first flight took 12 seconds, the Friendship 7 required around 98 minutes per orbit. NASA's program required a few more calculations than the Wright Brothers' first flight.

Hidden Figures' Formula Translation

Hidden Figures was released in select cities on Christmas Day and nationally on January 6, 2017. Rotten Tomatoes reveals that 98% of 13,924 people wanted to see the movie and 92% of viewers gave the movie a "fresh" rating.

Source: Rotten Tomatoes

The computer program central to Hidden Figures, FORTRAN, was central to NASA's supercomputer in 1961. FORTRAN was invented by a team of IBM computer scientists led by John Backus. The portmanteau stands for "Formula Translation" and the name was ultimately changed from FORTRAN to Fortran.

Hidden Figures is simply the first movie to explore this important part of computer history. Though a few movies like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 told the story of the space program, the people central to the overall program, who worked behind the scenes remained unseen.

Source: NASA, "Fixed-angle translunar guidance procedures using onboard optical measurements" by Harold A. Hamer and Katherine C. Johnson Langley Research Center, 1971

While Hidden Figures focuses on the contributions of three women, their story is representative of many. As well, Hidden Figures is valuable contextually, telling the history of the people who made subsequent NASA programs a success, with a focus on the human computers who needed to keep up with incredibly fast paced workplace challenges. Representative of the model for many subsequent technology businesses.

Inequality Caused By Corruption & Prejudice

In the film Hidden Figures, Mary Jackson, the NASA human computer and engineer, says that at the time, in 1961 "Virginia acts like Brown vs. Board of Education never happened." Though faced with inequality and prejudice, NASA's human computers did not give up. They used ambition, intelligence and their talents to protect the space shuttles and astronauts, with math and computer code. When nothing less than the best was required, and one degree of error meant disaster.

To this day some U.S. counties and states consistently report statistics that reveal disproportionate treatment of smaller groups, whereby United States counties exaggerate infractions of legal statutes in order to persecute and harrass minority groups. Based upon prejudice, cloaked in excuses. Whether skewed against people based on lack of wealth, race, corrupt greed by taxpayer funded entities, gender, religion, and so on, the result is dysfunction. In some instances groups in control use their powers to take extra money from constituents; not for municipal coffers, solely for themselves and their own personal business interests, with impunity.

Hidden Figures compares the dysfunction of inequality derived from prejudice, to the function of objective equality. Where NASA exemplified the greater good, albeit not without inequalities that needed to be resolved. Some used picketing and posters to attain the rights that were already supposed to be granted, some used math and computer code.

Hidden Figures' Story of International Business Machines

When Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) is asked what the human computers would do, after remarking "IBM's going to put us all out of work" she answers: "Learn all we can to make ourselves valuable."

Successful companies may do a round of layoffs, at the same time they are hiring people who can implement and advance their tech departments, in order to increase productivity. If a company realizes it can do many times more business by utilizing technology, given the nature of competition, often businesses choose to grow in order to build value.

Hidden Figures expresses strategy required to succeed. Take the example of a good business, or good philanthropic effort or a municipality; that failed in the past. Did they have a group working the math of their business, projecting the future, trying to find the answer to a problem that has only one right answer? To make certain what they were doing would work.

Comparatively look at: Industries or corrupt political systems that cheat their customers and constituents. Films like Francis Ford Coppola's The Rainmaker (1997), A Civil Action (1998) starring John Travolta, Michael Mann's The Insider (1999) and Steven Soderbergh's Erin Brokovich (2000) starring Julia Roberts, portray the more corrupt side of businesses and municipalities. Each of those films tells the story of industries that caused human disease, municipalities that placed more value on greed, and a system that allowed for so-called "business" to trample communities.

The stories described in The Rainmaker, A Civil Action, The Insider and Erin Brokovich, did not derive from calculations, like those portrayed in Hidden Figures, instead a type of ignorance where profit is blind to human condition and objective equality, regardless of whether the conduct of the business was a failure. If the industries and municipalities in The Rainmaker, A Civil Action, The Insider and Erin Brokovich had used the same strategy used in Hidden Figures they would have seen the harmful results of their actions before hand.

In Hidden Figures Dr. Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) the director of NASA's Space Task Group asks what IBM stands for and is told "International Business Machines," he replies "Space is a business, I need a mathematician."

Dr. Harrison (Costner) tells a Congressional Hearing in the movie that "discovery is never discovery for the sake of discovery, it is for the sake of human survival." He had to lay it on thick to convince the politicians to keep his program going, of course. Though Hidden Figures does a great job of exploring the constant idea that even the most seemingly impossible, is possible if it can be understood and solved mathematically. Hidden Figures is a powerful film in regards to computer history, NASA, the United States in 1961 and today, as new moonshots are charted and need stars as bright as Katherine C. Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn to be a success.

Disclaimer: This article is not a recommendation to buy or sell. Please consult a qualified financial adviser to determine proper allocations, if any to investments.


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