The Harvard Computers: The Women who laid the Foundation for Big Bang

In the coffee world, just before the green beans are bagged and shipped into various roasteries around the coffee, they’re placed on the table and a group of women, with a quick yet sharp look, will manually sort them into groups. This is an important yet ever underestimated task. Spending a few hours a day and paid only a penny for their work, these women help determine the grading and quality of the coffee. Manually sorting green beans – noticing if there are any breakage and defects – is a tedious job. And tedious job goes underappreciated.

The general view around these women is that they hold one of the least important tasks. But look at it another way and you’ll see that without them, there is no specialty coffee. Appreciating women in the workplace, sometimes, is a matter of perspective.

In the 19th century at Harvard, just a decade after the first class of female astronomers was officiated by Maria Mitchell at Vassar College, a group of female astronomers was formed to manually process astronomical data that will help to define the properties of the stars.

Opened in 1877, the clerics were formed with the help of Anna Mary Palmer, the wife of Henry Draper who was then known to have built America’s most powerful telescope of the time. At that time, Draper had an ambitious project – to make a catalog of stellar spectra, much like the way animals and plants are classified. He himself was not much of an astronomer, but a dean of medicine at New York University with a piquant interest in engineering and astrophotography.

The catalog was a laborious work that demands years-long continuous observations and meticulous note-taking. At a time when computers haven’t existed, this was a serious physical task. But this kind of massive database of stars—the first of its kind—could be the center for many groundbreaking discoveries in the future. At least that’s what Palmer, Draper’s wife believed; and that’s why, after Draper’s untimely death, Palmer knew she has to continue his legacy.

Palmer offered cash donation and Draper’s telescope to their long-time friend, Edward Pickering, the head of the Harvard Observatory. Pickering then hired women to sort through photographic glass plates and astronomical data to find patterns, such as the brightness, position, and color of the stars, in the sky, a-needle-in-the-haystack task.

They’re officially called the Harvard Computers, and are often remembered as the human computer or calculator, a term that can render their work as mechanical, lifeless, passive, and lacking in any imagination, which is far from the truth.

Pickering said, as recounted by Dava Sobel in her book The Glass Universe:

Many ladies are interested in astronomy and own telescopes, but with two or three noteworthy exceptions their contributions to the science have been almost nothing. Many of them have the time and inclination for such work, and especially among the graduates of women’s colleges are many who have had abundant training to make excellent observers… There seems to be no reason why they would not thus make advantageous use of their skill.

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Glass plates of sun spots
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star’s spectra. One of Dapler’s stellar achievement in astrophotography

Pickering did see the precious opportunity to hire smart, skilled women to further the astrophotography field. The task they were assigned is indeed a grind. Unlike the adventurous sensation of looking through the telescopes and unveiling the intimate details of a particular planet, these women spend more time hunched over the desk, nitpicking numbers. As Natasha Geiling described in Smithsonian magazine:

“Some of the women would reduce the photographs, taking into account things like atmospheric refraction, in order to render the image as clear and unadulterated as possible. Others would classify stars through comparing the photographs to known catalogs. Others cataloged the photographs themselves, making careful notes of each image’s date of exposure and the region of the sky. The notes were then meticulously copied into tables, which included the star’s location in the sky and its magnitude.”

In fact, even at Harvard, women were generally not allowed to operate the telescopes. Yet even under this limitation, their grind did become the force that propels our understanding of the universe. In less than a century later, Edwin Hubble confirmed that our Milky Way isn’t the only galaxy in the universe and discovered that the universe is expanding. These groundbreaking achievements were based on these women’s enduring works.

True, in the 1920s when Hubble made this groundbreaking discovery, telescopes were getting more precise and clear, enabling him to make such discoveries. But it was the Harvard Computers’ decades of work that legitimizes his discovery. Hubble was standing on the shoulder of giants, the women of Harvard Computers. As stated by Jenny Woodman in The Atlantic:

The women were challenged to make sense of these patterns by devising a scheme for sorting the stars into categories. Annie Jump Cannon’s success at this activity made her famous in her own lifetime, and she produced a stellar classification system that is still in use today. Antonia Maury discerned in the spectra a way to assess the relative sizes of stars, and Henrietta Leavitt showed how the cyclic changes of certain variable stars could serve as distance markers in space.

Pickering was once ridiculed for his Harvard Computers group; the women were called “Pickering’s Harlem,” which only speaks to the blatant sexism that existed at that time. But, just like the female coffee sorters who eliminate and classify coffee in the specialty industry, these Harvard women’s patience in threading the universe and weaving our understanding impacts a great deal today. And had it not because of their meticulous work, the universe might look somewhat different than what it is today.

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P.S. I write children’s story for adults about the moon. See it here. Or email me to purchase

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