The Little-Known Female Scientists Who Mapped 400,000 Stars Over a Century Ago: An Introduction to the “Harvard Computers”

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

As team names go, the Har­vard Com­put­ers has kind of an odd­ball ring to it, but it’s far prefer­able to Pickering’s Harem, as the female sci­en­tists brought in under the Har­vard Observatory’s male direc­tor were col­lec­tive­ly referred to ear­ly on in their 40-some years of ser­vice to the insti­tu­tion.

A pos­si­bly apoc­ryphal sto­ry has it that Direc­tor Edward Pick­er­ing was so frus­trat­ed by his male assis­tants’ pokey pace in exam­in­ing 1000s of pho­to­graph­ic plates bear­ing images of stars spot­ted by tele­scopes in Har­vard and the south­ern hemi­sphere, he declared his maid could do a bet­ter job.

If true, it was no idle threat.

In 1881, Pick­er­ing did indeed hire his maid, Williami­na Flem­ing, to review the plates with a mag­ni­fy­ing glass, cat­a­logu­ing the bright­ness of stars that showed up as smudges or grey or black spots. She also cal­cu­lat­ed—aka computed—their posi­tions, and, when pos­si­ble, chem­i­cal com­po­si­tion, col­or, and tem­per­a­ture.

The new­ly sin­gle 23-year-old moth­er was not une­d­u­cat­ed. She had served as a teacher for years pri­or to emi­grat­ing from Scot­land, but when her hus­band aban­doned her in Boston, she couldn’t afford to be fussy about the kind of employ­ment she sought. Work­ing at the Pick­er­ings meant secure lodg­ing and a small income.

Not that the pro­mo­tion rep­re­sent­ed a finan­cial wind­fall for Flem­ing and the more than 80 female com­put­ers who joined her over the next four decades. They earned between 25 to 50 cents an hour, half of what a man in the same posi­tion would have been paid.

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

At one point Flem­ing, who as a sin­gle moth­er was quite aware that she was bur­dened with “all house­keep­ing cares …in addi­tion to those of pro­vid­ing the means to meet their expens­es,” addressed the mat­ter of her low wages with Pick­er­ing, leav­ing her to vent in her diary:

I am imme­di­ate­ly told that I receive an excel­lent salary as women’s salaries stand.… Does he ever think that I have a home to keep and a fam­i­ly to take care of as well as the men?… And this is con­sid­ered an enlight­ened age!

Har­vard cer­tain­ly got its money’s worth from its female work­force when you con­sid­er that the clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tems they devel­oped led to iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of near­ly 400,000 stars.

Flem­ing, who became respon­si­ble for hir­ing her cowork­ers, was the first to dis­cov­er white dwarfs and the Horse­head Neb­u­la in Ori­on, in addi­tion to 51 oth­er neb­u­lae, 10 novae, and 310 vari­able stars.

An impres­sive achieve­ment, but anoth­er diary entry belies any glam­our we might be tempt­ed to assign:

From day to day my duties at the Obser­va­to­ry are so near­ly alike that there will be lit­tle to describe out­side ordi­nary rou­tine work of mea­sure­ment, exam­i­na­tion of pho­tographs, and of work involved in the reduc­tion of these obser­va­tions.

Pick­er­ing believed that the female com­put­ers should attend con­fer­ences and present papers, but for the most part, they were kept so busy ana­lyz­ing pho­to­graph­ic plates, they had lit­tle time left over to explore their own areas of inter­est, some­thing that might have afford­ed them work of a more the­o­ret­i­cal nature.

Anoth­er diary entry finds Flem­ing yearn­ing to get out from under a moun­tain of busy work:

Look­ing after the numer­ous pieces of rou­tine work which have to be kept pro­gress­ing, search­ing for con­fir­ma­tion of objects dis­cov­ered else­where, attend­ing to sci­en­tif­ic cor­re­spon­dence, get­ting mate­r­i­al in form for pub­li­ca­tion, etc, has con­sumed so much of my time dur­ing the past four years that lit­tle is left for the par­tic­u­lar inves­ti­ga­tions in which I am espe­cial­ly inter­est­ed.

And yet the work of Flem­ing and oth­er notable com­put­ers such as Hen­ri­et­ta Swan Leav­itt and Annie Jump Can­non is still help­ing sci­en­tists make sense of the heav­ens, so much so that Har­vard is seek­ing vol­un­teers for Project PHaE­DRA, to help tran­scribe their log­books and note­books to make them full-text search­able on the NASA Astro­physics Data Sys­tem. Learn how you can get involved here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

“The Matil­da Effect”: How Pio­neer­ing Women Sci­en­tists Have Been Denied Recog­ni­tion and Writ­ten Out of Sci­ence His­to­ry

Women Sci­en­tists Launch a Data­base Fea­tur­ing the Work of 9,000 Women Work­ing in the Sci­ences

Real Women Talk About Their Careers in Sci­ence

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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  • Pieranna Garavaso says:

    This sto­ry is nice­ly record­ed in M. W. Rossiter Women Sci­en­tist in Amer­i­ca. Before Affir­ma­tive Action 1940–1952 John Hop­kins UP 1995, pp. 53–4. There are more sto­ries about Flem­ing and the oth­er women work­ing with her. I am puz­zled by the lack of ref­er­ence to Rossiter’s work.

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