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THE 'HARVARD COMPUTERS'

Her-Story: Then & Now

HER-STORY: THEN

THE 'HARVARD COMPUTERS'

   Read Now Transcript

(late 1800s- early 1900s) CAN YOUR COMPUTER GIVE BIRTH, BAKE OATMEAL COOKIES, OR DANCE A MEAN VIRGINIA REEL? THE EARLIEST 'COMPUTERS" AT HARVARD COULD.

In the late 19th Century they had their own floor in the Harvard Observatory; a fine building made of bricks to protect valuable astronomical data. At long wooden tables, amid stacks of notebooks, the women known as The Harvard computers poured over images of light. New spectra graphic technology made it possible to photograph light patterns around stars. These women painstakingly performed complex calculations needed to process data from those images. Their work helped determine the positions and composition of stars.

Astronomer and Observatory Director Edward Charles Pickering assembled this task force of human 'computers' at the end of 19th Century. Known as 'Pickering's Women' or less flatteringly, 'Pickering's Harem' and eventually, 'the female computers', they were former teachers, recent college graduates and single mothers. One had even been Pickering's housekeeper. They were paid 25 to 50 cents an hour. Half what men would have earned for the same work. The "computers" developed classification systems that identified nearly 400,000 stars. They published nine volumes of the Henry Draper Catalog, still used by astronomers today, and their work is used to produce modern stellar maps.

The roster of Harvard Computers reads like a Who's Who of astronomers. Through the years they built upon each other's work. Williamina Fleming supervised the observatory for 30 years-working with Pickering on the first system to classify stars by spectrum. Antonia Maury helped locate the first double star, and developed her own classification system. Henrietta Leavitt developed a law to determine stellar distances. The most famous of the Harvard computers was Annie Jump Cannon. An expert in photography, she cataloged over 350,000 stars and developed the classification system used today.

For more information, please visit:
http://cannon.sfsu.edu/~gmarcy/cswa/history/pick.html

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