Harvard's First Computers Were Women

Cristen Conger

Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress

Long before the Mark I arrived on the Ivy League campus, this is what Harvard's first* computer lab looked like:

Calling this group of brilliant, analytical women "computers" is much kinder than their erstwhile nickname, Pickering's Harem. The tasteless moniker reflected the lackluster consideration for female intellect echoed even among the university's leaders. In a 1869 speech, Harvard President Charles W. Eliot acknowledged "the world knows next to nothing about the natural mental capacities of the female sex."

But in 1881, astronomer Charles Edward Pickering was up to his ears in astronomical data collected from telescope observations as well as newfangled astrophotography and saw women's "natural mental capacities" as the solution. Pickering thus hired his housekeeper Williamina Fleming as his new assistant to sift through and catalog the celestial information. In addition to overseeing the future female computers (many coming from women's colleges), Fleming went on to discover 10 novae, 52 nebulae, 310 variable stars as well as the existence of white dwarf stars during her 34-year tenure at Harvard.

Pickering's Harem.
Courtesy: Catchers of the Light

Among the more than 80 old school "computers" who would labor tirelessly at the Harvard Observatory were astronomy legends Annie Jump Cannon, who devised the standard classification system for stars and classified a cool quarter million stars, and Henrietta Swan Levitt, who figured out how to measure the distance of far away stars. Working six days a week and earning between 25 and 50 cents per hour (half of what men would make), these computer women collectively mapped the skies and laid the groundwork for future astronomical theories and our understanding of the galaxy. Their contributions to the field, though often overlooked, were invaluable.

Annie Jump Cannon.
Courtesy: Smithsonian Institute/Flickr Creative Commons

To learn more about the shining stars among these Harvard "computers," head on over to 15 Women in Astronomy You Should Know.

*Harvard had previously hired men as "computers" as well, but considering the scale and success of Pickering's Women as well as Pickering firing his previous male computers for incompetence, these women were undoubtedly data-computing pioneers.

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