With Nancy J. Farrier
Edward Charles Pickering didn’t like school as a young boy. He hated reading the classics, but devoured mathematics books in his free time. In 1865 he graduated Summa Cum Laude from Harvard. Two years later he became an assistant professor of physics at the newly established Massachusetts Institute of Technology or MIT. He went on to revolutionize the teaching of physics.
In 1876, Pickering was appointed director of the Harvard Observatory. This is where his story interested me. Henry Draper, well known astrologist, had begun a project to map the stars. He died before he accomplished much in this herculean task. His widow donated money to the Harvard Observatory for Pickering to take up her husband’s project and complete the work.
The story goes that Pickering had an assistant who was inept at cataloguing. Pickering told him he could hire his uneducated maid to do the same job and she would do it better. He followed through by bringing his maid, Williamina Fleming, to do the assistant’s work. She proved so adept at cataloging and doing the work that she continued to work at Harvard for thirty-four years.
For more than thirty years, Pickering employed women to assist with cataloguing the stars. Pickering’s Harem, as they were sometimes called, worked six days a week for low wages considering most of them were had a college education. They earned more than a factory worker, but less than a clerical worker. Still, they did ground-breaking work and made great strides in the field of astronomy.
|1913 Pickering and Computers|
Pickering’s Harem may have been a derogatory term, but in that time period many objected to women being educated. Women were thought to be better suited for breeding and maintaining a household. In 1873, Harvard Professor, Edward Clark, wrote a book, Sex in Education.He included this quote, “A woman’s body could only handle a limited number of developmental tasks at one time—that girls who spent to much energy developing their minds during puberty would end up with undeveloped or diseased reproductive systems.”
With all the opposition, Pickering still went on to photograph the stars. He had telescopic cameras in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. The women he hired poured over the photographs, deciding the location and magnitude of the stars. Through this work, Pickering is credited as having discovered the first binary stars, or double stars. He made many more discoveries, many due to the tireless and detailed work of the women he employed. In 1903, Pickering was able to publish a Photographic Map of the Sky, a first of its kind.
|Annie Jump Cannon|
By Schlesinger Library
Among the most famous of the women referred to as the Harvard Computers, was Annie Jump Cannon. She came up with a system for classifying stars that is still in use today. Her coworker, Antonia Maury, also developed a classification system. In 1938, two years before she retired Cannon received the honor of being named William C. Bond Astronomer from Harvard.
Of the 80 women who worked for Pickering and were known as the Harvard Computers, only two or three are remembered by name. They did incredible work in a time when such efforts by women were strongly discouraged. And, it all started with an uneducated maid challenged to do a job and being exemplary in that position.
|Harvard Computers 1890|
Have you ever heard of Pickering’s Harem or the Harvard Computers? I wanted to write so much more about them because their story is fascinating. I wonder if about their eyesight after spending days studying photographs and mappings stars. Such intense work. I will think of these women and the work they accomplished when I look at the night sky and the array of stars.
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Nancy J Farrier is an award winning author who lives in Southern California in the Mojave Desert. She loves the Southwest with its interesting historical past. Nancy and her husband have five children and two grandsons. When Nancy isn’t writing, she loves to read, do needlecraft, play with her cats, and spend time with her family. Nancy is represented by Tamela Hancock Murray of The Steve Laube Literary Agency. You can read more about Nancy and her books on her website: nancyjfarrier.com.