The world was stunned when the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957 and successfully orbited the earth with two satellites. Luckily for America’s efforts to catch up, a mathematician named Irene K. Fischer had been working for five years to build the nascent science of geodesy, the measurement and representation of earth in three dimensions.
While geodesy is used today for tracking satellites, GPS, and data applications in many fields, in the 1950s it consisted largely of two-dimensional maps drawn by different authorities in different countries. Only recently have historians come to realize the contributions of Fischer, whose work was largely classified at the time.
Irene had been educated in projective geometry in Vienna and fled Austria through Italy and Palestine to escape the Nazi onslaught. She eventually reached the U.S. where she taught math and took time off to raise her children.
Fischer was central to the development of the World Geodetic System, a standard for use in cartography and navigation including GPS.
When Irene interviewed in 1962 for a junior position at the Army Map Service (now the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency), the AMS chief got a surprise when he asked her about the Mercator projection. Fischer launched into a complaint about errors in textbooks that “describe the Mercator projection as a cylindrical projection rather than a mathematical arrangement of the parallels to make the rhumb line intersect at the meridians under a constant angle,” she recalled in her memoir.
The men in the room interviewing Fischer exchanged surprised glances.She got the job. Fischer quickly taught herself the basics of geodetic tables, datums, transformations, gravity studies, astronomy, long lines, and flare triangulation. One of her first researches was to calculate the degree to which the earth was wider at the equator and not a perfect sphere. The results of Fischer’s work on oblateness was dismissed because it differed from long-accepted figures from the International Association of Geodesy. She was not allowed to publish her calculations of Earth’s flattening at the poles, but later data from satellites confirmed her results.
Although her boss at AMS was supportive of Fischer, she wrote in her memoirs that some male colleagues were “politicking underminers” who thwarted her efforts. Bureaucrats caused needless delays in publishing her work and denied her access to the UNIVAC computer. Some “could not accept the idea that a woman could do something important,” Fischer wrote, while others claimed credit for her work.
Fischer was instrumental in developing what became the World Geodetic System, a standard coordinate system for the Earth and spheroidal reference for altitude data and calculations of nominal sea level. She became internationally recognized during the Mercury and Apollo moon missions. Colleagues in her agency began referring to her calculations as the “World Datum of Irene Fischer” or the “Fischer Ellipsoid.” She modestly insisted it be called the Mercury Datum instead. For seven years she worked to revise the Datum with the wealth of satellite data that accumulated.
In 1967, Fischer received the highest awards for civilian service from both the Army and the Department of Defense, and over the ensuring years received many other awards and accolades.
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