Women Computers

Harvard College Observatory began hiring women assistants as early as 1875, though women like Eliza Quincy volunteered their time even before that date. Some of the earliest women to officially work at the observatory include R.T. Rogers, R.G. Saunders and Anna Winlock, who all assisted William A. Rogers in his project regarding time zones. It wasn't until 1881 that the fourth Harvard Observatory director, Edward Charles Pickering, began hiring women computers specifically to study and care for the observatory's growing glass plate photograph collection. The first women to work with the glass plates were Anna Winlock, Selina Bond, Nettie A. Farrar, and Williamina Fleming. Between 1881-1950s, women computers cataloged stars for the Henry Draper Catalogue (funded by Anna Palmer Draper, in honor of her late husband Dr. Henry Draper), discovered variable stars, studied stellar spectra and counted galaxies, to name a few of their duties. Funding for the production and study of the glass plates came from several main donors: Anna Palmer Draper, Uriah Atherton Boyden, and Catherine Wolfe Bruce

Several of the women who worked with the Harvard College Observatory's glass plates became famous astronomers in their day, particularly Williamina Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon, Antonia Maury, Henrietta Swan Leavitt and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. Interested in learning more about these women? Check out The Glass Universe, written by the New York Times bestselling author Dava Sobel.

Currently The Astronomical Photographic Plate Collection is working with the Smithsonian Transcription Center to digitize and transcribe the logbooks and research notes from the members of the Harvard College Observatory before 1960. If you'd like to learn more about the project, or are interested in helping, please visit our transcription project page for more information.