Harvard’s Computers – Women of Substance who Made Abundant Contributions to Astronomy

In 1881, the director of the Harvard Observatory – Edward Charles Pickering – was in a state of flux with enormous amounts of data making its way to the observatory and far from competent staff to analyze the data appropriately. Pickering was doubtful of the ability of his staff, especially his assistant who was considered to be inefficient at cataloguing.

What he did to resolve this rising concern was unconceivable at that time – he fired his assistant and gave the work to his maid, Williamina Fleming. She was very proficient in the work of computing, copying and she continued to work at Harvard (for 34 years) where she later managed a large team of assistants – mainly women. This led to an era in Harvard Observatory history where women began computing and collecting data. There were more than 80 women during Pickering’s tenure who were involved in the computation and collection of data.

Pickering had taken an unprecedented step which led to the emergence of some of these women as bright stars of astronomy. These women computers at Harvard College Observatory are collectively remembered by the moniker – Pickering’s Harem. While it may not be the most flattering adjective for women of such talent, it is unknown if they were bothered by it.

At the time when ‘Harvard’s computers’ began to form, women were mainly expected to devote their energies towards homemaking. Progressive men like Pickering revolutionized the way in which women served the society. During Pickering’s time as a director in Harvard Observatory, the process of photography had been simplified which meant the prevalence of astrophotography rose markedly. This created the problem of huge amounts of data that needed interpretation.

The women put in six days a week and earned 25 to 50 cents an hour which was almost half the amount a man would have earned. The work they did was mainly clerical. The women would take numerous factors into account to reduce the photographs so that the images were as clear and unadulterated as possible. The stars were classified after a close comparison of the photographs and then they were cataloged appropriately. Careful notes were made about the date of exposure of the image and region of the sky it belonged to.

These notes were further copied to tables which helped organize the voluminous amount of data accurately. The notes mentioned the location of the star in the sky and its magnitude. The entire process was very tedious and required keen attention. The data they were building was extremely important because it created the foundation of many astronomical theories.

While Pickering had given a chance to many women to go beyond the traditional expectations of homemaking, he can hardly be considered wholly progressive. He limited the work of the women to computing and collecting data only. If any of them were allowed to make telescopic observations then it was only an exception. They were mainly barred from producing theoretical work.

Some of Pickering’s computers however, found a way to stand out for their contributions to astronomy and science.

Williamina Paton Fleming – Fleming began working for Pickering in 1878 when she was abandoned by her husband. She was pregnant at that time and was in need of money. She began working in his household and Pickering soon offered her a position at the observatory. In 1881 she became a permanent member of the observatory staff. She worked relentlessly to prove her mettle. In 1898, Fleming, who began her career as a housekeeper, was bestowed the title of Curator of Astronomical Photographs.

Antonia Maury – Maury began working in the Observatory in 1888. Her job required her to catalog and compute stellar spectra for the stars in the Northern hemisphere. She was interested in a lot more than mundane calculations. Maury was interested in theoretical work. But Pickering discouraged this in his computer which is why her employment in the observatory was intermittent. However, she relentlessly pursued her interests in stellar astrophysics. Today, she is considered as one of the greatest minds that engaged itself in the field of morphology of stellar spectra.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt – Leavitt’s interest in astronomy began in her senior years in college. While she could do more than cataloging and computing, Pickering did not allow her to pursue her endeavors in theoretical work. Her job was to take care of the telescopes and perform research from the photographic plates collection in the observatory.

She had to determine the magnitude of a star with the help of the plates. She created a system to gauge the brightness of the stars. This system was adopted in 1913 by the International Committee on Photographic Magnitudes. There are many other contributions to astronomy which are considered important today.

Annie Jump Cannon – Another member of Harvard’s Computers who had a lot more to contribute to astronomy than basic cataloging and computing, Cannon is considered as an expert in recognizing and cataloging stars. She refined the cataloging schemes and published many volumes of catalogs.

Pickering provided many women the opportunity to step out into a world where the acceptance of women at work was better and the opportunities available for them were more than working at home. While Pickering did try to hold them back, these women proved to be pillars of knowledge in the world of astronomy.

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