The Harvard Computers:
Prior to the nineteenth-century, little is written of women’s contributions in astronomy. In most astronomy texts, you will find no mention of Hypatia of Alexandria, considered the first woman astronomer. Most historians consider her brutal death in the early fifth-century to be the beginning of the “Dark Ages.” There is no mention of Hildegard von Bingen (1099-1179) whose ideas on “universal gravitation” predate Isaac Newton’s, nor Sophia Brahe, Tycho’s younger sister. It was not until the director of Harvard Observatory became disgruntled with the sloppy work of his male assistant, saying his housekeeper could do better, that women were readily accepted into the study of astronomy.
Harvard College Observatory was founded in 1839, a time when astronomy was beginning to be taught as a science subject in its own right, instead of as an extension of philosophy. This was also a time when universities were receiving funds for astronomical research, an endeavor previously pursued by learned men of means.
Astronomy is a science requiring observations and exact calculations, particularly of positions of celestial objects. This was tedious work completed by “computers.” Originally, young men performed these tasks. This changed when Edward Charles Pickering became director of the observatory in 1877 and opened the doors of astronomy to women.
Pickering was sympathetic to the women’s suffrage movement and recognized that there was a new breed of women, women that were educated. He also realized that with the new technologies of the time, telescopes that were readily available and astrophotography, that the data collection was happening faster than could be catalogued so as to be useful. Although women had been volunteers at the observatory in the past, usually relatives of men on Harvard’s payroll, Pickering convinced the Harvard Corporation to hire women for the tedious work of “computers.” This occurred none too soon as Harvard College Observatory would be asked to complete a task of astronomical proportions.
Henry Draper (1837-1882) was a man of means, a physician, an amateur astronomer, and a pioneer of astrophotography. He almost certainly acquired his interest in astronomy from his father, John William Draper, who took the first daguerreotype of the Moon in the winter of 1839-1840. Henry Draper also had many firsts in his short life. He took “the first photograph of an astronomical nebula, recording the Great Nebula of Orion on the night of September 30, 1880...the first stellar spectrum photograph, which he took of Vega in August 1872, the first wide-angle photograph of a comet’s tail, and the first spectrum of a comet’s head, both of these with Tebbutt’s Comet in 1881.” Draper "also invented the slit spectrograph and pushed the state of the art in photography, instrumental optics, and telescope clock drives.”
It was his intention to photograph the entire night sky, to create a complete spectral catalogue that would be available to others for their research. He did not realize his dream due to his untimely death at age 45, the result of double pleurisy after a hunting trip to the Rocky Mountains. It was his widow, Anna Mary Palmer, who did not let his dream die. She donated money to the Harvard College Observatory to complete this monumental task in honor of her husband.
It was indeed fortuitous that Pickering had hired women to perform the tiresome task of cataloguing and computing. The women’s beginning wage was about $.25 per hour, less than half that paid to men doing the same task. Pickering was able to double his staff of computers by hiring women. And as Pickering was to find out, the women also did a better job.
The women computers at Harvard College Observatory became known as “Pickering’s Harem,” an unflattering term. It is unknown if they were bothered by this. What is known is that they appreciated the opportunity he gave them, to work in the science they loved and to become some of astronomy’s brightest stars.
(Note: This section of the paper includes biographies on four women who made their mark in astronomy at Harvard Observatory. Click on their name to read more about them.)
I have been studying the history of women astronomers for ten years. This has not been an easy task, as there are very few comprehensive references available. Most of the research for this paper was obtained from Benjamin Shearer’s book, Notable Women in the Physical Sciences: A Biographical Dictionary. It is the best reference I have found on these women, as well as others I have researched. Therefore, I did not include citations as other references included in the following bibliography duplicated that which was found in the Shearer book. The “background” section on Henry Draper was obtained from the Steven J. Gibson reference in the bibliography.
There is a great need for further references on women in astronomy, especially if the current issues regarding girls and science and math are to be addressed. Even if the accomplishments of women astronomers are “ghettoized” in astronomy classes and texts, women and girls need to know that there are role models available to them, and that astronomy is what it is today because of their contributions.
Pickering hired approximately eighty women during his directorship at Harvard College Observatory. The above four women became bright stars of astronomy in their own right, though they were referred to as “Pickering’s Harem.” It seems more than coincidental that the word harem is derived from the Arabic word harim, meaning prohibited place. Pickering allowed women in a prohibited place, an observatory, and though he discouraged their own individual research, he opened the doors in more ways than he could have known.
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