Meet Evelyn Boyd Granville, the mathematician who mass produced computers and shot Apollo into space
One of the first Black women to earn a PhD in math, she worked on seemingly every major math project of the 20th century
Screenshot via YouTube
In 1949, the newly minted Dr. Evelyn Boyd Granville became only the second Black woman to earn a PhD in mathematics, but she didn’t realize her achievement until her sister pointed it out to her.
After completing her PhD, Granville worked on a litany of landmark mathematical and astronomical projects. She worked on the first mass-produced computer in the world at IBM; on Project Vanguard, which aimed to launch the first artificial satellite into orbit; Project Mercury, which intended to send the first humans into space; and Project Apollo, which attempted to land the first humans on the moon.
Like the “Hidden Figures”, Granville was a Black woman working in astronomy and math during the American civil rights era. The difference between Granville and others was that, in her mind, she wanted to be a mathematician and so she was, regardless of societal boundaries. She wrote that she was aware of segregation while growing up in Washington, D.C. in the 1930s, but “our parents and teachers preached over and over again that education is the vehicle to a productive life, and through diligent study and application we could succeed at whatever we attempted to do.” When asked whether there was a stigma because she was a girl, she replied: “No, no, we never had that stigma placed on us. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t do mathematics because, well, I could do mathematics.”
Granville spent her career taking opportunities that interested her, regardless of what her gender or skin color dictated she could or couldn’t do, saying “if a door opened, I went in.” In 1941, she was admitted to Smith College, where she received a Phi Delta Kappa (the national sorority for Black teachers) scholarship. She majored in math and originally intended to teach, though contemplated switching her primary studies to astronomy. Later, Granville wrote that had she known the US would launch its space program, signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958, she likely would have switched majors.
She graduated from Smith in 1945 and was awarded a scholarship to begin her PhD. Both the University of Michigan and Yale University offered her admission, though she ultimately chose Yale due to their financial aid offer. Ironically, had she chosen Michigan, she would have been in a cohort with Marjorie Lee Browne, the third Black woman to earn a PhD in math. After Browne it would be 11 years until another Black woman earned a math PhD.
While at Yale, Granville studied functional analysis, a branch of mathematics focusing on the relationships between objects, writing a dissertation titled, “On Laguerre Series in the Complex Domain." The Laguerre Series are polynomials (combinations of variables which only use operations of addition, subtraction, and multiplication) typically used in quantum mechanics, the mathematical description of the motion and interaction of subatomic particles. The Laguerre Series is often used as a solution for the Schrodinger equation, which explains how electrons move in space.
Granville's deep understanding of the Laguerre Series, functional analysis, and quantum mechanics likely aided her work on outer space projects. In 2021, these branches of math are still used by mathematicians and astronomers, but also by anthropologists, biologists, ecologists, geneticists, physicists, psychologists, and other scientists. Biologists and geneticists, for example, use a version of functional analysis to describe gene function and interaction, while psychologists use functional analysis to establish the relationships between stimuli and response.
After earning her PhD, Granville worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the New York Institute of Mathematics before moving to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee for an associate professorship. She was then recruited by the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C., to work with engineers to develop missile fuses. Eventually, Granville was hired by IBM, where she wrote programs for the IBM 650, an early digital computer that was the first mass-produced computer in the world. IBM had recently secured a contract with NASA, opening a door for Granville into astronomy work. She joined Project Vanguard, whose primary goal was to launch the first artificial satellite (the size of a grapefruit, according to Granville) into orbit, and Project Mercury, which aimed to send the first humans into space.
Granville moved to California in 1961 following her marriage to the Reverend Gamaliele Mansfield Collins, transferring to the Space Technology Laboratory in Los Angeles where she worked on space computing and developing programs for satellites and spacecraft. She commented that because this was during the Cold War, “it was a time when no matter what color you were, if you could do the job, you were hired.”
Eventually, Granville transferred to North American Aviation with the opportunity to work on celestial mechanics, orbital computations, and support engineers attempting to land on the moon for Project Apollo. Of that project, she said, “it was quite something. We actually went to space. We went to the moon.”
After her work on Project Apollo, Granville held teaching and science communication jobs and retired three different times — unsurprising given her strong work ethic and drive. First, she taught math at California State University Los Angeles, and then computer literacy to middle schoolers in Texas following her second marriage to Ed Granville, a job she ultimately “bombed out” of and retired from. She then joined the Computer Science Department at the University of Texas in Tyler, eventually retiring for a second time in 1997, and then worked for Dow Chemical talking to middle schoolers about math until her third and final retirement in 1999.
Granville is most widely known because she was only the second Black woman to receive a PhD in mathematics, and did so during the height of the American civil rights era when race relations were high — she was even denied entrance to the 1951 Mathematics Association of America since it was held at a whites-only hotel.
Although Granville never proposed a new mathematical theorem or published in prestigious journals, she did something arguably more extraordinary: she found a path to have the career that she wanted, and imparted what she learned along the way to others following in her footsteps. During her career, Granville mentored other Black women mathematicians like Drs. Vivienne Malone Mayes and Etta Zuber Falconer. “It never occurred to me to be the first,” she said, “I just wanted to do math.”