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Pickering’s Harem

December 9, 2013

Pioneering isn’t always very comfortable. Consider some of the first women astronomers of the modern age. They worked in a small room at Harvard College Observatory six days a week, hunching over photographic plates to catalog star positions and spectra. They were paid less than campus secretaries. And they weren’t even called astronomers — they were “computers.”

Yet the group that came to be known as Pickering’s Harem made immensely important contributions to modern astronomy. And today, many of its members are remembered as pioneers.

The group was formed by the observatory’s director, Edward Charles Pickering. In 1881, Harvard was cataloging an enormous collection of photographic plates. It required a lot of time and attention to detail, but Pickering had a limited budget for the project. So he decided to hire women because he could pay them as little as a quarter an hour — more than an unskilled factory worker, but less than a secretary. Much of their work involved detailed computations, so they were known as computers.

Many of the women were bright and inquisitive, and quickly expanded their roles. Williamina Fleming, who headed the group, discovered the Horsehead Nebula. Henrietta Leavitt developed a way to measure astronomical distances — a technique that’s still used today.

And Annie Jump Cannon developed a system for classifying stars — another contribution that’s still in use. We’ll have more about Cannon tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013

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