The commercial and critical success of 2016’s Hidden Figures drew much-needed attention to the all-but-forgotten, amazing tale of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and the other NASA “computers” who played a significant role in America sending men into space- which is both needed and thrilling…but what if I told you that they weren’t the first women to defy the odds and revolutionize their field of study?
It’s true. In the late 1800’s, the Harvard Observatory was busy amassing photographic plates of the stars – not only from North America, but Peru, South Africa, New Zealand, and Chile. In the Andes, Harvard astronomers ferried the plates packed in crates down a mountain on the backs of mules. Once the data returned to Harvard, Edward Pickering, the man in charge of the Observatory, realized he would need a ton of help to catalogue and analyze the massive influx.
But that’s not the surprising part. The surprising part is, in the 1880s, he collected a team of women to do the job.
Pickering had an undergraduate degree from Harvard and left to teach physics at MIT for a brief stint before returning as the director of the Harvard College Observatory in 1877. It didn’t take long for him to grow frustrated with his male staff, who he felt was lacking in performance and innovation. Legend has it that he said his maid could do a better job – so he hired her (truly!) to oversee his new, all-female team of computers.
The majority of these women came with college educations from some of the most respected institutions in the country, and they worked in a small laboratory near the Observatory – six days a week, for 25 cents per hour, calculating the temperature and motion of the stars.
Unlike the supervisors of the women in Hidden Figures, both Pickering and his successor, Harlow Shapley, were fairly progressive and gave credit where credit was due, and the women astronomers who discovered new stars, nebulae, and novae went on to be recognized the world over for their contributions to astronomy, as well as the still-emerging field of astrophysics.
As it turned out, their work paved the way for other women who wanted careers in astronomy, engineering, and aerospace as human computers.
Annie Jump Cannon was so successful that she became quite famous in her own lifetime, and the classification system she developed is still used today.
Adelaide Ames worked with Shapley to create the Shapley-Ames Catalog (which is kind of complicated to explain, but essentially was the first study to indicate the universe could contain regions that differ depending on location and direction).
Though the women have often been downplayed by being referred to as “Pickering’s Harem,” the truth is that in their own time, they were widely respected and seen as supremely accomplished. They were heroes in their fields, and their names appeared in relevant publications. Their successes also earned them invitations to all the best astronomical societies.
You can read more about these extraordinary women in a new book by Dava Sobel titled The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars.
In the meantime, let’s all take a few moments to Google, read, and tip our hats to these women who paid no mind to the expectations of the day, and grabbed hold of every opportunity with both hands – and hey, give a quick thumbs up to the forward-thinking men who believed in them, too.
h/t: The Atlantic
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