williamina fleming

The Harvard Computers (Hint: They were women, not machines!)

Today is the birthday of Annie Jump Cannon, born December 11, 1863, known as one of ‘Harvard’s Computers’. She is credited along with Edward Pickering as the creator of the Harvard Classification Scheme which remains the foundation of today’s stellar classification system.

One of a dozen women hired by Pickering to do the hard work of identifying, classifying and cataloging hundreds of stellar objects, Cannon distinguished herself as the brightest of the bright and rose finally to a full professorship before her death in 1941. Pickering hired the first of his ‘computers’ in a pique of frustration, noting that his maid could probably do better work than he was getting from his students.  Indeed, he hired his maid, Williamina Fleming, who became the first of his ‘computers’ and quickly distinguished herself. Pickering was pleased enough with her work (and lower wages) that he soon built a team comprised entirely of women to compose the catalog. Cannon was hired a little later to oversee a catalog of the southern skies.  While no eponym celebrates her name, her contribution (along with the remaining group at Harvard) as well as the countless women throughout history to impact science, math, politics and all human endeavor, today we remember and say Happy Birthday. A true gifted scientist and true pioneer, gone but not forgotten. As in most human endeavors, nameless and tireless women support the work of more celebrated men with little or no credit.  Newton said of his work:  ’If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’  Today we acknowledge that many of those giants were and are women.

Image currently in the public domain courtesy New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper.

Today’s post is for hb-she does twice the work and asks for half the credit.  Our boys are who they are because of her.

Williamina Fleming

(1857–1911) Astronomer

Williamina Fleming was a human computer at Harvard observatory, a role that included analyzing and cataloging photographic data. She developed the stellar designation system, later improved upon by co-worker Annie Jump Cannon. Fleming is credited with the discovery of 59 gaseous nebulae, more than 310 variable stars, and 10 novae. Her most noted discovery is Barnard 33, better known as the Horsehead Nebula.

Number 132 in an ongoing series celebrating remarkable women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.