williamina fleming

Before the days of Bill Gates and OS updates, the word “computer” was used (as far back as the 17th century) to describe a person who performs calculations. The latest episode of Shelf Life includes a segment about Henrietta Leavitt—an astronomer and human “computer” whose discoveries allowed researchers to determine cosmic distances.

Leavitt was one of a group of about 80 women, known as “the Harvard Computers,” who worked at the Harvard Observatory at the turn of the century. The Computers were hired by the Observatory’s director, Edward Charles Pickering, to help catalog and analyze thousands of early photographs of the night sky.

This assembly of scientifically-minded women has a somewhat apocryphal origin story: that Pickering—frustrated with his assistant’s sloppy cataloging—fired the male staffer with the words, “Even my maid could do a better job.” He did, in fact, then hire his maid Williamina Fleming as the first of the female computers. Fleming, who had been a teacher before becoming a maid, made several lasting contributions to astronomy, discovering the famed Horsehead Nebula and helping to develop a temperature-based classification system for stars.

The Computers worked six-day weeks and earned between 25 and 50 cents an hour.  Employed as technicians, their tasks included measuring the brightness of stars and analyzing spectra to determine the properties of celestial objects. Aside from their clerical bookkeeping, however, many of the women were fascinated with astronomy and made discoveries of great importance.

Annie Jump Cannon was hired by Pickering in 1896, but unlike some of her fellow Computers, she’d previously studied physics and astronomy at Wellesley and Radcliffe. Cannon classified hundreds of thousands of stars in her career and developed a standard stellar classification system that’s still in use today. She became the first woman elected as an officer to the American Astronomical Society and was the first woman to receive an honorary degree from the University of Oxford.

Today, Museum astrophysicist Ashley Pagnotta (featured in the latest Shelf Life episode visits the Harvard College Observatory at least once a year to look at glass plates of the night sky and revisit the data generated by the Harvard Computers. “I use the same plates that these women did,” says Pagnotta. “When I go through them, I come across ones that have their notations. That’s one of my favorite things about going to the plate stacks. These are women whom I’ve looked up to for a long time.”

This post was originally published on the Museum blog

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.