Trailblazing Women in Astronomy

You may never have heard of the 'Harvard Computers', but they were 80 women who helped to build the foundations of modern astronomy. Their efforts are about to receive their long-deserved recognition.

The so-called Harvard Computers were a group of pioneering and under-appreciated women researchers who worked at the Harvard College Observatory in the late 19th and early 20th century. Edward Charles Pickering, the male director of the observatory, began hiring women to crunch numbers in his quest to document all of the stars in the sky.

These human 'computers' have been largely consigned to the footnotes of history, but their contributions to astronomy helped catalogue and map over 400,000 stars and helped to build the foundations of modern astronomy.

Harvard alumni and former MIT professor Edward Charles Pickering was hired as a professor of astronomy and director of the Harvard College Observatory in 1876. Pickering was invested in the study of photometry - measuring how bright stars and other space objects are. The brightness of a star can shed light on its size, composition, temperature, distance, and more. Using the still rather new and clumsy medium of photography, the new director collected thousands of glass plate images of the skies.

Although before 1875 some women likely had assisted in the work of the observatory, male assistants were the norm. However, Pickering found himself frustrated with the pace of these assistants as they analyzed the images of stars. Given it was generally considered unnecessary or even detrimental to allow women opportunities for advanced study, Pickering was not looking for degrees but rather a natural gift for numbers. And he found a great many.

Over 80 women worked among the Harvard Computers during Pickering's tenure from 1877 to his death in 1919.

Today, the women Harvard Computers are finally receiving some of their long-deserved recognition. Harvard's Project PHaEDRA is a collaborative effort to collect, transcribe, and mine for genius the works of these early astronomers. These pioneers of astronomy pushed the boundaries of math and physics as well as what was expected of women in society. Hopefully, their efforts will be remembered in classrooms around the world for bringing the dark corners of the universe to light.



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