Williamina Fleming: From Maid to Stardom

At the dawn of the 19th century, together with Harvard’s head of observatory Edward Pickering, Williamina Fleming led the way for a new kind of system to look at the stars.

And thus while the old time astronomer clings tenaciously to his telescope for visual observations, astronomical photography is leaving him far behind and almost out of the field in many investigations which nevertheless he still continues in his own way, trying also to maintain that, as stated above, it must be the best, if not the only way.

Williamina Fleming

The age of manual observations and note taking-a technique that lasted for centuries and gave us our atlas and global map- was coming to an end. And an age of astrophotography-where astronomers measure and map the universe using glass photos -was just about to begin, a method that we still very much use to this day.

The quote above was taken from Williamina’s speech–titled A Field For Woman’s Work In Astronomy–at a Congress of Astronomy and Astro-Physics in Chicago in 1893. Just three years prior, she published a massive catalogue of 10,000 stars, categorized by its spectra (variations of light), which in itself is a massive undertaking that later granted her to be one of the most well-respected astronomers in the era. And all this was done prior to the age of computer machines, which can instantly output data, and large ground-based telescopes, which can extract bigger information more accurately.

Despite her enormous success, Fleming’s career in astronomy was an incident. She came at a fortuitous time; right when the observation method was about to be revolutionized and the very definition of astronomers about to shift.

Up to the 1870s, when Edward Pickering began to extensively use astrophotography, astronomers depended on their own laborious and manual observations of the night sky. Think Galileo Galileo with his home telescope pointing at the stars, his hand clutching the pen and his paper is scattered on his desk. This is his scene for night after night. To build an entire body of research involves this routine and practice of disciplines for months, if not years. The eyes will eventually get tired, Pickering reasoned. For centuries, this cumbersome method of mapping the universe had been the norm.

The astrophotography technique that Pickering introduced involves having a glass plate at the other end of the telescope, replacing the eyepiece. Placed underneath the telescope overnight, the glass plate will ‘absorb’ the light that passes through the telescope, freezing that moment just like photography.

Blog_Glass Plate
Glass Plate. Belongs to American Museum of Natural History.

After the image is captured in the glass, astronomers can study them the next day. Unlike the direct observation method, astronomers don’t need to monitor the process overnight. And the glass plate, once it’s ready, can be used for further evaluations years afterward. This is still the interaction we have today between ground-based astronomers and the low-orbit telescope, Hubble.

What happened next is the Harvard Computer story.

For the first few years with astrophotography, Pickering had male computers examining the glass plates, only to be left disappointed by the quality of their work. Feeling that they can’t endure the drudgery work; he dissed, that his housemaid could do better work than them.

The assignment was to create a stellar classification based on the stars’ properties, which means comparing the minute details of thousands of stars captured in the plates. By then, Pickering already had thousands of glass plates needed attention and very few qualified workers. He then hired his housemaid, Williamina Fleming.

Yep – Fleming, who will reach critical acclaim for her catalog of 10,000 stars a decade later, was firstly Pickering’s housemaid.

Before her incidental career in astronomy, Fleming was ‘just’ a 21-year-old Scottish who came from a financially struggling family and grew up with little formal education herself. She came to Boston as a newlywed and before long, was left by her 16-years-apart husband while she was pregnant. Without any jobs and money, Fleming then came to Pickering as a housemaid in 1979. Impressed by her vigor and lively intellect, he later hired her to be part of the Harvard Computers.

Fleming’s first role was as part-time clerical staff. When given the responsibility to hire more women, she took this as an opportunity to give women just like herself – without education – a chance to make a living.

Blog_Harvard Computers
Harvard Computers

Soon fully immersed in her own studies of the stars, Fleming eventually heads the department itself: writing, editing, and proofreading research papers, annual reports, and data tables, as well as the voluminous Annals, becoming the stronghold for the other women and the mission as a whole. To her colleagues she was applauded diligent and bright, despite her ‘excellent’ salary for a woman’s standarda comment she dismissed as an embarrassment for ‘an enlightened age.’ 

Fleming continued paving the ways for future astronomers—such as noticing the odd, hot, Earth-sized stars later dubbed white dwarfs—despite the oftentimes tormenting situations and remarks.

In her career spanning more than 20 decades, she has examined nearly 200,00 photographic plates, discovered 10 novae, 59 gaseous nebulae, devised a system to categorize long-period stars with certain spectral characteristics, and discovered the star nursery on Orion’s belt, Horsehead Nebulae. The expansive use of astrophotography under her and Pickering’s direction elevated the astronomy field as a whole.

But what’s remarkable from her, among many other notable women such as Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Swan Leavitt, was her resilience and grit to lay the foundation for these human computers to work in such a synchronized system. And all this was done without a formal astronomy background.

Fleming turned the institutional, ivory-tower mindset around; the kind of mindset that pervaded in the era, both on using glass plates as opposed to direct observation, and on harnessing the persistence power of women.

While we cannot maintain that in everything woman is man’s equal, yet in many things her patience, perseverance and method made her his superior.… Therefore, let us hope that in astronomy, which now affords a large field for woman’s work and skills, she may, as has been the case in several other sciences, at least prove herself his equal.

The Harvard Computers, then only seen as clerical staff because they don’t rely on direct observation, eventually shift the very definition of astronomers and now considered to be the ones who map the universe.

As it is today, institutions are slow to keep up and slow to change. Fleming, having little attachment to the overall institution system, poked on this reality in her essay A Field For Woman’s Work In Astronomy:

Photography, as applied to Astronomy is one of the greatest advances which has been made in this the oldest of sciences, and this same advance has opened up a comparatively extensive field for woman’s work in this department.

Today, we’re still seeing this hard-headed regulation as we witness the Thirty Meter Telescope erected on Hawaiian’s sacred mountain, Mauna Kea. At a time when low-earth telescope is perhaps a much more sensible option as a long-term investment, the TMT, built to peer into ancient galaxies, now sounds much more like an actual ivory tower that threatens the local tribes who have opposed this project for the last decade. Astronomy, even though it’s intertwined with romances and poetries, is still very much part of a large, ‘phallic’, and tower-y institution. And this TMT versus Hawaiians incident just highlighted this tension between scaling up our ambitious pursuits and maintaining the integrity of our kinship.

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

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