In the late 1800s, Harvard Observatory had more than a dozen computers working in the busy astronomy calculation area. The computers created complex calculations to map stars and wore corsets and skirts. They also gripped their pencils at thick wooden tables. These computers weren’t the kind we know today. They were made up of teams of people who used arithmetic in order to convert raw observational data into usable forms.
Harvard’s female computers sat in a small space with floral wallpaper and star charts. They not only improved the field of astronomy but also created new systems for studying the stars. This trend continued into the 20th century and beyond.
The Harvard women (now called “Harvard Computers”) were not recognized for their contributions to mathematics or astronomy. They were nicknamed “Pickering’s Harem” at the time and were thought to be doing computing work similar to embroidery.
These female professionals are a “harem”, but that would be a sign of misogyny. Their hire was marked by an ironic mixture of sexism, opportunity and sexism that defined 19th-century progressivism. Although men could be employed to do various mathematical tasks, clerical work, which was previously forbidden to women, had been deemed “women’s work” even though it involved complex calculations, data analysis, cataloging and cataloging. Many of the early male scientists would not have imagined that the “busywork,” they gave to female computers in late 1800s would become so important.
How it all began at Harvard Observatory
Harvard Observatory was an American astronomical research center that was renowned in the 19th century. However, the institution was plagued by a data problem. There was simply too much data. David Alan Grier writes that Joseph Winlock, a former astronomer who loved to record the data but not put it into any useful or practical form, left behind a “decade” of numbers in When Computers Were Human.
The observatory needed to act with the data from thousands of observations made by men using telescopes. The observatory’s director Edward Pickering employed a male assistant. However, Pickering did not like his work ethic or cataloging skills. He decided in 1881 to hire Williamina Fleming, his housemaid. She was more capable of completing the clerical work.
Pickering was a liberal progressive and thought Fleming would be a good choice to hire as a “computer” to catalog the data and do the tedious work that men couldn’t do. Fleming was hired at 25 to 50 cents per hour. This allowed women like Fleming to get the job done and saved the observatory quite a bit of money.
Grier wrote that the women’s rate for calculation work was half of what it is normally paid. This made other observatories jealous. Pickering said that “a skilled observer shouldn’t be forced to spend time doing something that could be done as well by an assistant at much lower salaries.”
Even though it sounds archaic now, Harvard Observatory was the only place in the area that allowed a female mathematician from Harvard to use her skills. Although women’s colleges were available, they assumed that graduates would marry rather than begin a career. Female graduates wanted to put their mathematical skills to real-world applications.
Williamina Fleming – pioneer woman in Tech
Fleming was a housemaid who had a lower salary than her academic work. She jumped at the opportunity and, fortunately, so did future astronomers. The Harvard Observatory would become an incubator for the talents of brilliant women. Fleming spent 36 years at Harvard Observatory and discovered over 10,000 stars and a few nebulae. She also discovered the existence of white dwarf star stars. Fleming also managed more than 80 female computers, many of which were straight out of college.
Henrietta Swan Leavitt was one of her employees. She discovered a logarithmic relation between the luminosity periods of some stars and their apparent brightness over time. This allowed astronomers to measure our distance to other galaxies. Annie Jump Cannon, a mathematician and astronomer from Wellesley College, Massachusetts, provided new insights into the interactions of light and matter through her interest and research in spectroscopy astronomy.
Cannon and her associates studied thousands of photographs of the night sky over the course of four decades for the Henry Draper Catalog. This massive data collection project, published between 1918 and 1924, was designed to map all stars that could be photographed. It also contributed to Cannon’s staggering classification of more than 500,000 stars.
Cannon had already invented the Harvard classification system. It ranks star types according to their brightness and sizes by the time that the catalog was published. It is still used today by astronomy students. They memorize O, B and A, F, H, G, K, M (also known as the mnemonic “Oh Be a Fine Girl. Kiss Me”.
For the first time, stars were cataloged using one of their most important qualities, temperature. This can be used to indicate age and size. This system not only distinguished one star from another, but also helped to define the possibilities that stars could tell us about the universe around them: its distance from Earth, possible characteristics of planets orbiting it, and when it might explode.
Trend of women in astronomy
The trend of women continuing to do computations in astronomy continued into the 20th Century. Five women joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the precursor to NASA (NACA), in 1935 as computers. NASA reports that they became more efficient than the male engineers and were “essential to operations at NASA”. The Langley Research Center of NACA in Virginia employed hundreds of female computer scientists after the lack of male workers during World War II.
The segregated west side of NACA’s facility was home to a new research team made up of black women, the West Area Computers. They were responsible for the success of early flight and the space research program. In 1958, NASA was created and NACA become NASA. The space program took precedence. They needed additional help and that meant they turned to female computers for the complex calculations necessary for space flight.
Katherine Johnson, a mathematician and child prodigy, answered the call to become a woman in science. She calculated the trajectory for the first American to go into space. Her calculations guided Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong safely through Apollo 11’s first moon mission. NASA reports that John Glenn requested that NASA recheck her calculations before he flew aboard Friendship 7 – the mission that saw him become the first American to orbit Earth.
Johnson’s women are getting a lot of credit now for their work. Margot Shetterly will examine the history of the West Area Computer team’s black members in Hidden Figures: The Story Of African-American Women Who Aided Win the Space Race. It is due out this year. Although most of the Harvard Computers’ female Harvard Computers did not get the recognition that they deserved, they helped to open the doors for women in science.