Meet the Harvard Computers

1466268_1428800040666481_1159123551_nWhen I met with Harvard-Smithsonian astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, one thing that we talked about was the history of the Harvard observatory.  Jonathan explained to me that there was a lot of work involved in mapping the night sky.  I guess!  So, Edward Charles Pickering, the director of the observatory (1877 – 1919) decided to use “computers” for analysis.  Meet the Harvard Computers, pictured above, circa 1913.

To listen to Jonathan talk about the Women Computers, click on the link below.  I’ve also included an edited transcription.

Click here:


To listen to Jonathan’s full recording, go to:


The [Harvard] Observatory was founded in the 1840s. There had been astronomy at Harvard since very early times – maybe the 1700s – but they just had a few small telescopes on the roof. … There was a big comet in the early 1840s that got a lot of the public interested in astronomy. Astronomers in Cincinnati, which at that time was pretty much Wild West, had a big observatory. The upshot was that the New England elite were a little embarrassed that they didn’t have anything to match. And so one of these guys decided that they really needed to have something to be a premiere astronomical institution and he should raise some money. His name was John Quincy Adams. So he was able to raise the money in [something] like two weeks, or something ridiculous. So the great refractor was born on Observatory Hill – or what became Observatory Hill. … It was one of the biggest refractors in the world. … On this great refractor telescope the Harvard astronomers did the first experiments with photography. They took some of the first daguerreotype of the moon and other objects. … An important development was the systematic photography of the sky where [they] took lots of photographic plates of parts of the sky and stored them – and we still have them. And so we have 100 years – or more than 100 years – of archive photographic plates. …

This was a lot of work though and more than the astronomy professor at Harvard could do. So, he did the observations for the most part – but he hired computers to do the analysis. And these were not digital computers, they were human beings and, for the most part, they were women. And the tradition at that time in observatories and other laboratories was that for mathematical calculation and for data reduction kind of work, it was a good opportunity to hire women who didn’t require the same pay scale as men at the time and were thought to be reliable and good at detailed work. So they were just meant to catalogue these stars … but just do rote work, not really think about it too much, not make discoveries. But, of course, that kind of job attracted women who were smart and wanted an intellectual challenge – and they did make discoveries. Instead of taking the discovery credit for himself, the observatory director actually recorded who made the discoveries and gave them credit. And so we know the names of these women. So we know that Annie Cannon is the person who catalogued a quarter-of-a-million stars and made the distinctions we still use today between an O-star, which is a blue star and an M-star, which is a red dwarf star. …

Copyright 2013 Story Preservation Initiative.  All rights reserved.

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