Suggested Searches

6 min read

Pearl I. Young

Pearl I. Young
Pearl I. Young
Credit: NASA

Pearl I. Young (1895 – 1968) was the first female professional hired by the NACA, in an age when most women in the government were constrained to staffing support positions such as secretaries or administrative aides. After a productive initial career in the field of instrumentation, she recognized the shortcomings of technical writing by the Langley staff and the lack of a systematic approach within the NACA to prepare technical documents. She personally conceived and implemented a highly-successful technical writing system that resulted in outstanding documentation of superior quality. The basic approach inspired by her efforts was implemented by the NACA and NASA, and continues to be used today.

Pearl Irma Young was born in Minnesota, but grew up in North Dakota and attended school there. At age 11, she left home to work as a domestic in order to attend high school. She attended Jamestown College for two years and, in 1919, graduated from the University of North Dakota as a Phi Beta Kappa with a triple major in physics, chemistry, and mathematics. After graduation, she was hired by the university to teach physics, a role that typically was served by men. At that time, there was only one female physicist working for the entire federal government; and she worked for the National Bureau of Standards. Young took the required Civil Service exam for physicists and fully expected to be hired by the Bureau of Standards; but instead, in 1922, she was hired as a physicist by the NACA and reported to the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. In an interview almost 50 years later, she said that when she arrived at Langley there were only 32 people, that she was introduced to all 32, and that she could still remember all of their names.

She was initially assigned to the Instrument Research Division, working with Henry J. E. Reid, who would ultimately become the Engineer-in-Charge of Langley. The section designed, constructed, calibrated, and repaired virtually all instrumentation carried on aircraft. During her first few years on the job, Young assembled and calibrated instrumentation used to measure pressures on aircraft surfaces in flight.

By 1929, Young had noted that the young, inexperienced engineers at Langley had poor technical writing capabilities; and that a system was required to help teach them the mechanics of writing, as well as to establish procedures that would improve the quality of publications coming from the laboratory. Reid, who in 1926 had become Langley’s Engineer-in-Charge, responded by appointing her as Langley’s first Chief Technical Editor.

She established a new office, hired qualified staff, and formulated a system to approve the technical documents that communicated the extraordinary technical accomplishments of Langley. Her oversight of the technical report program was always exacting. The procedure had all prospective documents extensively vetted by a panel of engineering peers — although she allowed preliminary reports to circulate to key users. Before a report was final, however, her editorial staff reviewed the drafts in detail, and authors made revisions — sometimes extensive revisions. She insisted that all reports be checked and rechecked for consistency, logical analysis, and absolute accuracy.

The procedures established by Young often frustrated NACA engineers, who wanted to see their work disseminated promptly, as well as industry or military clients who wanted prompt answers to aeronautical problems. However, she successfully argued that the quality of the final product was more important than the speed with which it appeared. Pearl Young helped define the public image of the NACA and influenced the way aeronautical engineers throughout the NACA communicated their ideas and results. In 1943, she published a document entitled “Style Manual for Engineering Authors,” which served as the guiding document for authors at Langley and other NACA laboratories. Many elements of that document are still used today.

During its existence, the NACA published more than 16,000 research reports, most of which were distributed to a huge mailing list that included laboratories, libraries, factories, and military installations around the world. The reports became famous for their thoroughness and accuracy, and became the rock upon which NACA built its reputation as one of the preeminent aeronautical research institutions in the world.

While at Langley, Young had no limit to her energy and interests. In 1927 she spent the summer touring aircraft research laboratories in Germany and England; and she was a passenger on the dirigible Hindenburg in 1936 during its first west-to-east flight (the terrible Hindenberg disaster occurred the following year). She had an extra-curricular career as a writer for the Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch, for which she covered inaugurations, debuts, dog shows, horse shows, races and other contests, and even had a front-page story on Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt.

Along with several other Langley employees, Pearl Young left Langley in January 1943 to work at the new NACA Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory (now the NASA Glenn Research Center) at Cleveland, Ohio. She left behind her editorial staff of eight women at Langley under the supervision of Miss Viola Ohler, who would later become the wife of famous Langley researcher W. Hewitt Phillips. After a brief four-year stay in which she established and trained the technical editing staff, she resigned to teach physics as an assistant professor at the Pennsylvania State College (now the Pennsylvania State University) Pottsville Center (now Penn State Schuylkill) from 1947 to 1957. She then returned to the NACA in Cleveland where she was given the title of Technical Literature Analyst, and wrote on subjects involving astrophysics.

She retired from NASA in 1961, and taught physics for another year at Fresno State University.

After her retirement, Miss Young pursued her intense hobby of aeronautical history. She was especially intrigued by the life of Octave Chanute, the famous aviation pioneer who had encouraged the Wright brothers and their experiments. She published a comprehensive biography of the works of Chanute, and presented lectures on his life at technical meetings. She also collected records and correspondence between early aeronautical experimenters, which were published after her death as a memorial volume. Her archived papers on Chanute and others are now available at the Denver Public Library.

Miss Pearl Young died on June 16, 1968, having never been married or had children. Her obituary noted that she had been a scientist, university professor, journalist, lecturer, author and world traveler. Born and raised in the Midwest, she had moved from Virginia to Ohio to Pennsylvania to California and back to Virginia. Her interest in science was extended when she donated her body to science. In her later years she did not drive a car, and frequently used city buses and waited at bus stops. As a touching tribute, in her will, she left the City of Hampton approximately $15,000 to be used for the construction of benches and shelters at bus stops throughout the city. Her bequest was announced in the local newspaper, and her generosity was appreciated by the many Hampton citizens who used those facilities.

In recognition of her extraordinary contributions to the NACA and NASA, the NASA Langley Research Center named a new auditorium in her honor in 1995. In 2014, that facility was replaced by a new Pearl Young Theater in a new campus building, and now serves as a focal point for meetings at Langley.