As subtle as a flying brick.

“Women hold up half the sky”–Chinese proverb

Pickering and the Female Computers. In 1881, Edward Pickering,
the director of the Harvard College Observatory, became so impatient
with a male lab assistant’s work that he famously declared his maid
could do a better job. Rather than take offense, his 24-year-old maid, Williamina Fleming,
instead took him up on the offer. She ended up working at the
Observatory for the next 30 years, supervising the tedious work of
cataloging photographic plates, but also discovering variable stars and
novae, helping to develop a classification system–and, perhaps even more importantly, hiring nearly 40 female assistants, many of whom went on to have distinguished scientific careers.
These “computers,” as they were called, were a bargain for Pickering:
at first the women worked for free; after a number of years he rewarded
them with a salary–about 30 cents an hour, roughly half of that of the
men who did the same work. As he wrote
in his 1898 annual report, the women computers were “Capable of doing
as much good routine work as astronomers who would receive larger
salaries. Three or four times as many assistants can thus be employed.”

(As a side note, the US Naval Observatory also employed female
— and male — computers around the turn of the century. In 1906, the
computers were paid equally, $1200 a year for both men and women. But
only men had the opportunity for advancement, as, among other things,
the most prestigious jobs at the USNO required a military commission,
which wasn’t available to women.)

Thanks to Pickering and his maid, women were able to make an indelible
contribution to science. The most notable astronomers to come from his
lab were Antonia Maury, Annie Jump Cannon, and Henrietta Swan Leavitt.
Their discoveries and innovation helped usher in an age of science and
inquiry in astronomy, and helped pave the way for women in the field.
Noted a student of the eminent astronomer Vera Rubin
(who herself got her doctorate in astronomy at Georgetown University in
1954 by taking night classes while her husband waited for her in the
car): “American astronomy became preeminent because of two discoveries: Hale discovered money and Pickering discovered women.”


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s