In March 1971, a computer science whiz with an unlikely background was given six months to complete a seemingly impossible project for the United States Navy: the development of a single computer interface which could take all of a ship’s desired specifications and create from them a workable rough draft of the vessel’s design. Experts said six years would not be enough to accomplish the project, let alone six months, and some were skeptical that it was possible at all given the technology that existed at the time.
When Raye Montague (1935-2018) was given this task, it was with the expectation that she would likely fail.
Failure, however, was simply not in the vocabulary of Raye Montague. Her life to that point, and indeed ever after, was a string of daunting obstacles overcome by a combination of raw talent and pure determination, and the small matter of creating the world’s first integrated naval design program, on a restricted time schedule, with no support, was just another hurdle in her path.
Raye Montague was born Raye Jean Jordan in 1935 into a world that had carefully and willfully attempted to place accomplishment out of her reach. Thanks largely to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, the crushing 25% national unemployment rate of 1933 had been reduced to a merely unbearable 14.2% by that point, but recovery was slow to come to Little Rock, Arkansas, where Jordan lived her first ten years. It was a segregated city, with strictly demarcated zones of where it was and was not safe for a Black girl to be. Within the confines of the Ninth Street corridor there existed a vibrant Black community that looked after its own, but beyond those borders the social expectations of the Deep South took firm hold, limiting where you could shop, where you could sit, and most importantly for Jordan, what you could learn.
Jordan’s mother, Flossie, had gone to college and earned a degree in education, and she was a fierce believer in the value of good schooling. Raye showed from a young age a curiosity with how things worked, and enjoyed taking apart and reassembling toy trains and cars, which long-time readers of this column will recognize as a common theme running through the childhood of many engineers and physicists throughout history. Flossie wanted to ensure that this child had the best education that the restrictions of the Southern schooling system would allow, and enrolled her in St. Bartholomew’s Catholic Church.
Surrounded by a supportive family network, and deeply attentive to the importance of the education she was being offered, Jordan was in a prime position to be impacted by an event that changed the course of her life in November 1943. One day, her grandfather decided to take her to see a small Japanese submarine that had been captured at Pearl Harbor and which was touring the United States, giving people a chance to crawl inside in exchange for the purchase of war bonds. Her grandfather paid for Raye to take a tour and once there the lights all went on inside her young mind – all of the consoles and ducting and wiring, perfectly organized to allow this vessel to sink beneath the waves and carry out its tasks struck her like a symphony of design, and she knew that, somehow, creating something like this was what she wanted to do with her life.
In 1945, Jordan and her mother relocated from their familiar if restricted Little Rock environs to a town called Pine Bluff when her mother, who had divorced Jordan’s father during the Little Rock years, married a postal clerk with a steady income. Here, they lived in a predominantly white neighborhood, and Raye distinctly felt the sudden shift from being surrounded by people who looked like and welcomed her, to a sea of people who, by and large, considered her family’s presence a blot on the community.
Unable to attend the Pine Bluff High School because of its whites-only status, she enrolled instead in Merrill High School, a primarily Black school that had existed since 1886. This was an unexpected blessing, as Merrill boasted a vigorous lineup of teachers committed to inspiring their students to overcome the limitations of life in the Deep South, including having to use the cast-off out-of-date textbooks from the nearby white high school. Merrill energetically sought first class guest speakers to address the students, and when Raye said that she wanted to pursue shop and calculus instead of the expected home economics courses, the school found a way for her to pursue her unconventional pathway.
Following high school, Jordan wanted to attend a college engineering program to start firmly down the path she had plotted for herself as an inspired eight year old. The problem was that the sole college in Arkansas which offered an engineering major, the University of Arkansas, did not admit non-whites as undergraduates. It would have been too much to ask her single mother (her stepfather having died in 1950) to pay out-of-state tuition, so she settled at last for Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College, located in Pine Bluff. AM & N didn’t have an engineering degree, but it did have math and science courses that Jordan loaded up on while pursuing her BS degree in business and a secondary education license.
Jordan graduated in 1956 and moved to Washington to be with Weldon Means, the man she had married in 1955 and whose problems finding persistent employment lent particular urgency to Jordan’s need to find a regular, well-paying job. In August her sister-in-law got her an interview with the Applied Mathematics Lab at the Navy’s David Taylor Model Basin as a clerk-typist, a job she obtained on the strength of her degree and a white lie about knowing how to work with UNIVAC computer systems which she had in fact never touched before. At first, her job involved relatively mechanical error checking, but she was keeping a close eye on what the UNIVAC operators were doing when they ran the machine so that when, on October 20, 1957, no operators showed up to work, she was ready to step in and take over, which attracted the attention of her boss, who promoted her on the spot to the position of Computer Systems Operator.
She learned from the other operators how to code her own programs and correct the code of others, and she took additional UNIVAC classes to bolster her knowledge, and in due course was promoted to Digital Computer Systems Operator, with responsibility for debugging UNIVAC programs written in COBOL, FORTRAN, and ALGOL. Over the course of the early 1960s she operated the 115,000 pound LARC system which ran hydrodynamic simulations, in which capacity she caught the attention of computer science legend Betty Holberton, who had been one of the six original programmers for the ENIAC system and had worked on the development of COBOL with Grace Hopper, in addition to being the inventor of the “breakpoint”, or deliberately coded stopping point, for debugging routines. Frustrated with the resistance to promotion in her own department, Jordan joined Holberton’s team, where she was soon engaged in beta testing the idea of processor timesharing for the Navy by which a computer might work on several processes at once, increasing its task efficiency.
By 1970, Jordan (now Montague after her 1965 marriage to Dave Montague) had developed a reputation for being able to handle the development and testing of computer routines that accomplished complex engineering tasks. That reputation culminated in her being asked to join the Navy’s new Computer Assisted Ship Design and Construction (CASDAC) program. At the time, the Navy was seriously considering saving money in ship construction by having its boats constructed by foreign countries, which was sound economic policy but did not look particularly good politically. It was hoped that CASDAC might eliminate the substantial expenses that came in the design phase of a new ship by allowing a computer to handle the task of reconciling conflicting demands from different engineers that often required months and years to work out by hand.
Programs existed for dealing with individual aspects of a ship, but before Montague nobody had succeeded in creating an overarching system that took all desired aspects of all of a ship’s different systems and integrated them into one feasible rough draft. Most thought that to do so would be the task of years, but in 1971 Montague was set the challenge of accomplishing it, by herself, in six months. So, she worked nights and mornings, putting in scads of extra time without charging for any of it, just to see the project through. Her system was ready by the fall of 1971, when President Richard Nixon directed the Navy to develop a new ship design in two months, a process that usually took two years.
The only way to possibly achieve that timeline was with Montague’s untested Ship Specifications computer system. She took the job and said that she wouldn’t need the two months – either her machines would accomplish the task over Columbus Day weekend, or they wouldn’t be able to do it at all. She pushed herself harder than ever, getting all of the requirements loaded into the main computer and starting up the system before going home, fully expecting the process to take a couple of days.
In fact, the new ship’s rough draft was printed and ready within eighteen hours. The first computer-designed naval vessel was born, and it was Montague’s impossible work that made it happen. The ship that program designed was the Oliver Hazard Perry frigate (or FFG-7), the first of which would enter service in 1977, and the last of which was not decommissioned until 2015. The FFG-7s had a reputation for durability and flexibility, with some of the fifty-one ships that were ultimately built seeing as many as three decades’ service.
The design of the Perry frigate was a pioneering moment that sparked intense optimism about the future of computer-generated design to drastically lower costs and errors in the drafting process, and in 1972 Montague received the Meritorious Civilian Service award in recognition of the importance of her work. As the Seventies unfolded, Montague continued to develop professionally, adding work in the Navy’s Equal Employment Opportunity Program, and outreach work to local schools, to her ongoing work with CASDAC, while at home her divorce from Dave Montague in 1970 opened the doors to a 1973 marriage to James Parrott, whose schizophrenia she only discovered after their marriage, and whose wild mood swings and irresponsibility with money lead in turn to their divorce in 1980, all the while her son David (b. 1966) was growing up with her strong dedication to work and intellectual achievement as a model to see him through often unsteady times.
She was, as the Seventies came to a close, poised to take over the job of her boss and mentor, Wally Dietrich, who had become, after a period of initial skepticism, one of her staunchest supporters. But upon his death Raye found that not only was she not in line for his old position, but that her work was being distributed to other people throughout the office. After a decade and a half of hard work and distinct success, she was seeing her role in the department partitioned and minimized, and the next decade was a steady slog through actively antagonistic department heads, misassigned tasks, and uncertainty against which Raye fought with all her customary tenacity, which was sometimes rewarded, but more often deflected as she was kept from the senior executive service that would have been the next logical step in her career.
Raye Montague retired in early 1990, and ultimately moved back to Little Rock in 2006 to be closer to her son and to experience how the segregated city she had known as a girl had changed in the ensuing decades. She was a popular local speaker who was catapulted into national recognition once again with the release of the film Hidden Figures in 2016 and its attendant rekindling of interest in the Black women who had key roles in US engineering throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Celebrated in print and on television, Montague lived to see herself fully celebrated for who she was and what she accomplished, and when she died of heart disease in 2018 she did so perhaps happy in the knowledge that her example was planting ambitions in the minds of thousands of children who saw their impossible dreams validated in the figure of a person who had so distinctly achieved hers.
FURTHER READING: The source you need for the life of Raye Montague is Overnight Code: The Life of Raye Montague, The Woman Who Revolutionized Naval Engineering (2021) by Paige Bowers and Raye’s son, David Montague. It’s a story rich in detail about what life was like for a Black girl growing up in the Deep South during the segregation era seeking an education, and how frustratingly arbitrary it was to work as a person of color in the mid-century Navy, where you were as likely to end up under an administrative tyrant who devoted himself to destroying your career as a benevolent mentor who worked to advance it. It’s a great book about a part of naval history that will only grow more momentous with the passing of time, and a personal story through three generations of a family that stuck to itself against all odds and adversity, and stayed together thanks to a common bond of integrity, determination, and achievement.
Images courtesy of Paige Bowers, and published on Women You Should Know with the express permission of Bowers and David Montague.