The Harvard Computers – Badass Women who Shaped Science

Written by Chad Echakowitz


Women are badass. This simple fact is not articulated enough. They just are. They don’t need to make nine movies about being punched in the face just to show how strong they are, or tumble down Niagara falls in a barrel just to prove how brave they are. Women gracefully, and in complete silence, exhibit their badassary throughout history. And today, we’re going to talk about just six of these unsung heroines. So buckle up: where we’re going, we don’t need roads.


Who are the Harvard Computers?

In 1877, under the direction of Edward Charles Pickering, the Harvard Observatory was tasked with calculating, categorizing, and cataloguing as many stars as possible. As is the case with most scientific research, however, there was very little funding available. There was only one thing to do: exploit an undervalued and marginalized group of people. Pickering decided to hire women for the project, as he would be able to pay them less than he would have to pay men. Women also readily accepted the work in order to gain experience in a field that was notoriously difficult for women to get in to. At a wage reserved for unskilled workers ($0.25 per hour), the women, known as the Harvard Computers, were set to work measuring the brightness, position and colour of stars. What actually came out of the project was so much more than this.

These are the women who helped shape the foundations of modern astronomy.


Mary Anna Draper


Mary and her husband, Henry Draper, were a super cool couple who found a shared love in astronomy. Their enthusiasm quickly turned to obsession, with the Drapers being the first people to ever take photographs of the spectrum of a star, using a telescope that Henry built in their own observatory in New York. They also helped found the Mount Wilson Observatory to help further astronomical research. Through this shared love, Mary was able to hone her skills and become an expert technician for the observation, photography and laboratory work in the astronomical field.

When Henry died in 1882, Mary donated all her equipment to the Harvard College Observatory. Though she never directly involved herself in the research done by the Harvard Computers, she essentially bankrolled the project, donating often to Pickering’s research. She would also often stop by to learn about the progress of their research.

Until her death in 1914, she hosted lectures and exhibitions in her home laboratory.

This excellent woman turned a mere fascination in to a career. Her shared love of astronomy helped to propel her in to a scientific field which she helped to build, providing funding and insights for women who were brought on only because they were cheap labour. With no formal training, and no initial scientific background, Mary Anna Draper is a legend and an inspiration.


Williamina “Mina” Fleming


Mina, as she liked to be called, had a hard life. Born in Scotland, Mina attended school and went on to help teach at the school from the age of 14. She married at 20 and moved to Boston with her husband. Shortly after arriving in Boston, Mina’s husband abandoned her when he found out she was pregnant. Without any other options, she found work as the housemaid for Edward Pickering. Pickering’s wife suggested to him that Mina had “talents beyond custodial and maternal arts” and that she should work for him at the Observatory. In 1879, Pickering did just that, hiring Mina for part-time administrative work at the Observatory.

Two years later, after exhibiting exceptional skill, Pickering asked her to join the Harvard Computers on a full-time basis and trained her in analyzing stellar spectra. Four years after that, Fleming was put in charge of the whole group of Harvard Computers.

As well as being the first person to discover a white dwarf star, Fleming went on to discover the Horsehead Nebula in 1888, though publications refused to credit her with the finding (surprise, surprise). In 1998 she was appointed as the Curator of Astronomical Photographs at Harvard – the first women to ever hold the position.

The Horsehead Nebula

The Horsehead Nebula

From humble Scottish beginnings, to being a scientist of such high-esteem who found one of the most beautiful astronomical phenomena in our universe, Mina is a paragon of persistence and tenacity. Fleming teaches us all that it does not matter where you came from, it’s all about where you’re going. There’s even a song produced by Minerva Scientifica in her honour.


Antonia Maury


Antonia Caetana de Paiva Pereira Maury may be one of the coolest people ever. Named after her maternal grandmother, who belonged to a noble family that fled Portugal due to the Napoleonic wars, Antonia is one badass in a family of badasses. Her father taught future President Thomas Jefferson and was the first US consul to England. Her uncle was Henry Draper (Marry Anna Draper’s husband). Her sister, Carlotta, became a geologist, a stratigrapher, and a paleontologist. It is no wonder she was destined for greatness.

Graduating from Vassar College with honours in physics, astronomy and philosophy, Antonia immediately sought work at the Harvard Observatory. She joined the Harvard Computers for a few years but left because she and Pickering came to a disagreement over her classification and explanation of differing line-widths in spectra results. She was also tired of not being credited for her work, which was often published under Pickering’s name.

Later, the Danish astronomer Ejnar Hertzprung would use Antonia’s classifications in his system of identifying both giant and dwarf starts. In 1922 the International Astronomer’s Union modified its classification system based on their work.

Pickering later asked Antonia to come back to work at the Observatory. She agreed to do so only on the condition that she be credited for her work. As a result, her work was the first issue published to have a woman’s name on the title. The title read, “Discussed by Antonia C Maury under the direction of Edward Charles Pickering”.


Anna Winlock

Much like the boss-ass-bitch Mina Fleming, Anna Winlock was dealt a rough hand from an early age. Though she was able to get an education, Anna was suddenly made the sole provider for her family at the age of 18 following the sudden death of her father. As such, she had to find any work available. Given her education, she was able to secure a position as a Harvard Computer, working on calculations.

Her father had worked for the observatory before her, and she was able to carry on his legacy, refining all the data he had collected into manageable and accessible criteria. As one of the very first women to work on the Harvard Computer squad, Anna was able to raise awareness of the unfair wage differences between men and women, especially on the basis that the work being done by the women was of an exceptional quality. Anna was also able to prove that women had a place in science, and specifically the male-dominated field of astronomy. 


Annie Jump Cannon

Annie Jump Cannon is a machine. Of all the Harvard Computers, Annie classified the most stars, totaling a massive 350,000 in total. She was able to classify 200 stars an hour, with Pickering acknowledging her excellence, stating, “Miss Cannon is the only person in the world – man or woman – who can do this work so quickly.”


Annie was encouraged from an early age to pursue studies in mathematics, chemistry, and biology, but settled for physics and astronomy which she studied at Wellesley college in Massachusetts, one of the most formidable science Universities in the United States. She worked for Pickering as his assistant at the University, and created a stellar classification system that is still used by the International Astronomical Union today.


Henrietta Swan Leavitt


Unlike the other Harvard Computers, Henrietta’s interests were wide-ranging. During her studies, her curriculum ranged from classical Greek Language, fine arts, and philosophy, to analytic geometry, and calculus. It was only in her fourth year of study that she took a course in astronomy.

While working at the Harvard Observatory, Henrietta discovered the first “standard candle”. This allowed astronomers to measure the distance of far away galaxies. Such a discovery assisted Edward Hubble in his finding that the Universe is actually expanding.

Henrietta died at an early age, But she was lamented not just for her scientific accolades. One of her colleagues wrote of her, “she had the happy faculty of appreciating all that was worthy and lovable in others, and was possessed of a nature so full of sunshine that, to her, all of life became beautiful and full of meaning.”

Henrietta reminds us that even though important people are ascribed in history for their contributions, they are still people. They have feelings. They have inside jokes with their colleagues. They cry and they feel as all people do. They are more than their contributions.

Of course, one could argue that had the women of the Harvard Computers been paid equally to their male counterparts, they then would not have been hired in the first place due to budget constraints, and so the astronomical field would have suffered, but such an argument is fallacious. It ignores the fact that these women were not credited for their work, that they were completely underestimated in their capacity. It ignores the fact that they were worth more.

In the last 100 years the equality between women and men has become more of a reality. But we are nowhere near where we should be. On average, women are still paid 75¢ for every Dollar a man makes. Yet, clearly, the work done is of the same, or a higher quality. The exploitation of cheap labour is the result of a capitalistic system which encourages and rewards such exploitation. These six badasses of science reached beyond any expectation and laid the foundations for future scientists. They are worth more than what they were given. One should be rewarded for one’s merits, not hamstrung for their gender.

More Articles like This…