They were considered outsiders, both skilled in performing mathematical equations quickly, yet neither of them received a warm reception when they arrived at the laboratory. One was human and one a machine. But both Janez Lawson and the IBM she programmed were known as computers.
In 1952, Lawson had just completed her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles. The president of her sorority and a straight-A student from a prestigious university, everyone expected greatness from the 21-year-old African American woman. Yet as Lawson perused the job board on campus, there wasn’t a single engineering position open to someone of her race and sex, no matter her qualifications. When she applied to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, she saw the job of a “computer”—that is, a person responsible for the lab’s calculations—as a way to work in the field, even if she couldn’t have the coveted title of engineer.
At the same time that she was entering the workforce, so was the IBM 701. Thomas Watson, IBM’s president back then, called the machine “the most advanced, most flexible high-speed computer in the world.” It was the first IBM computer available commercially and 19 of the new-fangled machines were making their way to laboratories across the country. Lawson commuted the 30 miles from her home in Santa Monica to Pasadena by car on crowded freeways, still under construction, and then down the dirt road that led into the lab. The IBM 701, on the other hand, arrived by airfreight, its 20,516 pounds of computing power traveling nearly 3,000 miles to reach its new home.