In the early years of the 20th Century, the director of the Harvard Observatory, Edward Charles Pickering came up with the idea to use women to collate and process all of the astronomical data acquired by the observatory. Some of the women who took part in the project included Williamina Fleming and Annie Jump Cannon, as well as many others. The decision to hire women to process astronomical data was a contentious one at the time and the women were often unfairly labeled as “Pickering’s Harem”. They were also called a more respectable “Harvard Computers”, and it was seen as the first major step towards including women in the science subjects.
Why did Pickering Opt for Women over Men?
There has been much speculation as to why Edward Pickering opted to hire women for the job rather than men, and one factor that seems prominent is that women were paid a lot less than their male counterparts. This meant that Pickering could hire more staff for the same amount of money, which was crucial because at that time, the observatory was receiving much more data than the staff could process.
The First Women of Astronomy
The very first woman Pickering hired was Williamina Fleming, who was actually employed as Pickering’s maid at the time. It seems that at the time of her hiring, Pickering was becoming increasingly despondent with the attitude and ability of his male staff to complete the job. Fleming did such a good job - she discovered many celestial objects, including 79 stars, 10 novae and more - that Pickering decided to make use of a sizeable donation given to the observatory in order to hire more women, and he put Fleming in charge of his new all women team, with great results. In 1898 she was bestowed the title of Curator of Astronomical Photographs and became the first woman to receive such an appointment of this kind.
Annie Jump Cannon
One of the most hard working and influential of all of Pickering’s American women astronomers was Annie Jump Cannon. Cannon’s hard work and ceaseless determination helped her to classify more stars than anyone else, a staggering half-a-million individual stars. In addition to that impressive number, she also helped to classify 5 novas, 300 variable stars and a solitary spectroscopic binary.
So detailed was her work, that in 1922 the International Astronomical Union passed a resolution that formally accepted Cannon’s star classification system as standard, and despite a few minor changes, it is still in use today.
These two were among the 80 ‘Harvard Computers’; all of them bright stars.