Astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the surface of the moon 50 years ago at 10:56 p.m. EDT on July 20, 1969.
In 1969, I was 28 years old and living at the Cambridge YWCA on Temple Street and working at the Instrumentation Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Albany Street, in the old Whittemore Shoe Polish Factory.
I had begun working in the technical publications office on April 3, 1967.
With a bachelor of arts in English journalism and a master of arts in English, I had been unable to find work for six months after graduation. After walking the streets of Boston looking for a job, I ended up at the Hickox Secretarial School and took a course in typing for 10 weeks, typing on a manual typewriter from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. five days a week.
I was hired by Dorothy C. Ladd, the head of the technical publications office as a senior editorial secretary. When I was first hired by Mrs. Ladd and living in Winthrop, I found that I had to be in by 8 a.m. every morning, and found that I had to get up very, very early to make the 8 a.m. arrival time by taking buses and the subway. Mrs. Ladd considered an 8:01 a.m. arrival as being tardy and 8:08 a.m. arrival as late. An employee was docked a quarter of an hour if he or she came in at 8:08 a.m. I was in charge of the time book and had to ask all of the employees when they arrived at work every day.
In December of 1967, I moved to the Cambridge YWCA so I could walk to work. After two years, I was promoted to technical editor and was able to work in the editorial room, which was one of the only rooms in the office to have air conditioning. We each paid $10 to rent an air conditioner. Mrs. Ladd contributed $20 to the air conditioning because she sometimes sat in the editorial office to cool off.
The old Whittemore Shoe Polish Factory had a flat roof, and during the summer months, the temperature at 68 Albany St. sometimes reached 90 degrees. If I remember correctly, three days of 90-degree-plus weather resulted in early release for employees working in technical publications. Sometimes, during the hot weather, you could smell shoe polish as you went up the stairs. I used to say that people took a shine to me because I worked in an old shoe polish factory.
I found it was sometimes like the wild west working at the Instrumentation Laboratory in the 1960s.
One of the female technical staff members was Margaret Hamilton, an important and outstanding member of the Apollo team, but I don’t remember many women technical or administrative staff members. I also didn’t believe the stories I heard about the office Christmas parties, but I do remember making my way down the stairs, peeking into an office where someone was singing “Hava Nagila” and banging out the rhythm on an overturned metal trash can amid a group of revelers. One technical illustrator told me he had something for me, and I pictured a linen handkerchief selected and wrapped by his wife “for the girl in the office.” Instead, I heard a tale of marital woe and left as he feebly attempted to kiss me.
Dr. Charles Stark Draper, the founder of the Instrumentation Laboratory, was a brilliant scientist. He liked to throw out a problem to the engineers and technicians who worked at the laboratory, and because the laboratory had several locations clustered around MIT, the different groups all worked on finding the answer to the same question at the same time.
I was told that he didn’t like maintaining multiple laboratory locations, so as funding increased (it didn’t decrease that often), he leased more and more buildings that were known as “ILs” for the Instrumentation Laboratory. At one point, there were 18 different ILs.
When the Instrumentation Laboratory was divested from MIT in the early 1970s, the ILs became “DLs” for Draper Laboratory.
IL1 through IL4 were housed in the shoe polish factory at 68 Albany St., where the technical publications office was also located. IL5, a former lingerie factory, was directly across the street from Albany Street. Technical publications had satellite offices in several of the ILs. I had to call the satellite office every morning to get their arrival times. I later found out that the concept of the time book was established because Mrs. Ladd had so many employees reporting to her.
Along with the excitement of the moon walk and the Apollo program, we all lived through the demonstrations by student groups against MIT and the Instrumentation Laboratory because we were known to be working on inertial navigation systems. The Vietnam War was raging, and the demonstrations became more heated.
During one of the demonstrations, we saw helmeted riot police go down Osborne Street to IL5. We could hear the chanting of the demonstrators and hear the barking of the police dogs. Medical students in white coats with red crosses on their sleeves were there to aid the demonstrators.
What made the demonstrations even more alarming was that we couldn’t see what was happening on Osborne Street. We could just hear the demonstrators and the barking of the police dogs.
I knew that we were living in the midst of history, and I suggested to Mrs. Ladd that we get copies of all the local, national and student newspapers with articles about the laboratory and the demonstrations and have the student editors cut out the articles and place them in acid-free sleeves in three-ring binders. This was before office and personal computers. I also suggested there be two sets of books compiled and that any handouts from the demonstrations be included in the archive.
When Mrs. Ladd left the laboratory two years later, I found one of the employees throwing out the binders. I managed to save one set and sent them over to an engineer at IL5. He also realized the binders were an archive documenting the turbulent days of the demonstrations.
The Instrumentation Laboratory was divested from MIT in the early 1970s, and I had been promoted to administrative staff member. There was no public communications office of the Draper Laboratory. Several men wanted to head the public communications office and told me that I could work for them.
I persuaded management to let me create a public communications office and they put me in charge of public communications, community affairs and employee communications. I had created “D-Notes,” the first employee newsletter the laboratory ever had, “The D-Lineator,” a technical newsletter, and a metrication news sheet.
I kept getting phone calls from male engineers telling me that someone else should be doing my job. At parties, wives of engineers asked me if I was doing my job as a hobby, or they told me everything I was doing wrong.
I was given a small interview room at the front of the building at 68 Albany St. as my office. I could fit a small desk and a chair in the room. The security guards complained that they kept their coat rack in that room, and I came in one day and found a large rolling coat rack taking up most of my new office. I made them remove it. I worked at my desk with my back to the inside of the brick exterior wall.
Tech Talk, the MIT newspaper, printed the announcement of my promotion on their “Help Wanted” page.
I left the Draper Laboratory in 1975 to spend time with my father, who had developed cancer. My sister, Sheila, left her job too, and we had two great years with our father. We started communications and antiques businesses.
For years, rumors were spread that I had been fired because an article appeared in The Boston Globe about the layoffs at Draper Laboratory during the early 1970s and the laboratory’s attempt to find jobs for the people who were asked to leave through a new employment practice, out-placement. The Globe article featured a cartoon of a man in a cage, for some reason, possibly because no one ever left Draper Laboratory until retirement, and the laid-off employees didn’t know how to go about looking for a new job.
One man was quoted as never telling his wife that he had been laid off. He continued to leave his house every day as if he still worked at the laboratory. I had nothing to do with the article, and never knew it was going to be published.
The Draper Laboratory of today is probably nothing like the Draper Laboratory of the 1960s and 1970s. Things change, and there are more and more educated women in management and engineering positions. There will always be a need and a desire for answers to questions about how we can improve the quality of life. There is nothing like the challenge of finding an answer to an intriguing, almost impossible question. Dr. Draper knew that, and when I asked him what he was most proud of, he said, “Learning to stay alive in a tough world!”
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