The 19th century women who catalogued the cosmos

Called the Harvard Computers, a team of women in the 19th century catalogued the stars and developed systems that are still in use today.

In the 19th century, a woman seeking an education had a tough, sometimes impossible, road ahead. Although education for women was becoming more common by the 1850s, most tertiary education was for learning the essential skills to become a teacher. Women certainly weren't allowed to attend universities such as the prestigious Harvard, established in 1636.

In fact, Charles William Elliott, the president of Harvard University from 1869 to 1909, seemed baffled by women. At his inauguration as president of the university, he noted that "the world knows next to nothing about the natural mental capacities of the female sex." In the 1920s, he declared that women were "physically too fragile" for tertiary education.

How he must have been chagrined by the Harvard Computers. At a time when women were expected to be mothers, housewives or labourers, these women worked with Edward Charles Pickering, doing advanced mathematics to catalogue thousands of stars.


Edward Charles Pickering and the Harvard Computers, May 1913.

Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Pickering might not be as familiar a name as Edwin Hubble, Johannes Kepler or Albert Einstein, but he was no less important to astronomy. The director of the Harvard College Observatory from 1877 to 1919, his work in cataloguing stars based on photographs was hugely influential.

When he took over the observatory in 1877, he had a staff of men performing the calculations required to catalogue the cosmos. He found, however, that this team was struggling to process the huge amounts of data. So in 1881 he fired the lot of them and hired his maid.

This wasn't as strange a decision as it sounds. Williamina Fleming was an educated woman. Before her marriage, she had been a teacher. When her husband deserted a pregnant Fleming in Boston, she took a job as Pickering's housekeeper. According to legend, Pickering had declared in frustration that his maid could do a better job than his staff, and brought her into the observatory in a fit of pique.

Pique or no, Fleming did indeed prove better than Pickering's male staff. Her calculations were careful and precise, and she was a diligent worker. Moreover, she worked for less money than the university would have had to pay a man.

In 1886, Anna Mary Palmer Draper, the widow of pioneering astrophotographer Henry Draper (1837-1882), made a generous donation to the observatory. Pickering used this to hire a whole team of women. These women came to be jokingly and unflatteringly known as "Pickering's Harem," but their other name was far more accurate: the Harvard Computers.

These women, paid just 25 to 50 cents per hour, studied photographs of the skies, classifying stars, meticulously mapping their location in the sky. It was often arduous work, and very detailed. In 1890, Pickering published the very first Henry Draper Catalog of the some 10,000 stars catalogued according to their spectrum, compiled largely on Fleming's cataloguing work.

Pickering would go on to hire over 80 women over the years, and their work in cataloguing and refining the methods of cataloguing the stars shines to this day. And a few of them went on to become important figures in their own right. Take a look at the gallery below to see their full contributions.

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