Edward Charles Pickering

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For similarly named people, see Edward Pickering (disambiguation).
Edward Charles Pickering
Edward Charles Pickering 1880s.jpg
Born (1846-07-19)July 19, 1846
Boston, Massachusetts
Died February 3, 1919(1919-02-03) (aged 72)
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Nationality American
Fields Astronomy
Alma mater Harvard
Known for spectroscopic binary stars
Notable awards Henry Draper Medal (1888)
Valz Prize (1888)
Bruce Medal (1908)
Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1886 and 1901)

Edward Charles Pickering (July 19, 1846 – February 3, 1919) was an American astronomer and physicist[1] as well as the older brother of William Henry Pickering.

Along with Carl Vogel, Pickering discovered the first spectroscopic binary stars. He wrote Elements of Physical Manipulations (2 vol., 1873–76).


Pickering attended Boston Latin School, and received his B.S. from Harvard in 1865. Soon after graduating from Harvard, Pickering taught physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.[2] Later, he served as director of Harvard College Observatory from 1877 to his death in 1919, where he made great leaps forward in the gathering of stellar spectra through the use of photography.

Pickering and the Harvard Computers, standing in front of Building C at the Harvard College Observatory, 13 May 1913

At Harvard, he recruited over 80 women to work for him, including Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, and Antonia Maury. These women, the Harvard Computers (also described as "Pickering's Harem" by the scientific community at the time), made several important discoveries at HCO.[3] Leavitt's discovery of the period-luminosity relationship for Cepheids, published by Pickering,[4] would prove the foundation for the modern understanding of cosmological distances.

In 1876 he co-founded the Appalachian Mountain Club.


In 1882, Pickering developed a method to photograph the spectra of multiple stars simultaneously by putting a large prism in front of the photographic plate.[5]

He also, along with Williamina Fleming and Annie Jump Cannon[6] designed a stellar classification system based on an alphabetic system for spectral classes that was first known as the Harvard Stellar Classification and became the basis for the Henry Draper Catalog.

Pickering is credited for making the Harvard College Observatory known and respected around the world, and it continues today to be a well-respected observatory and program.[7]


Awards and honors

Named after him

(all jointly named after him and his brother William Henry Pickering)



  1. ^ "PICKERING, Edward Charles". The International Who's Who in the World. 1912. p. 856. 
  2. ^ Daintith, John. (1999) A Dictionary of Scientists. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  3. ^ The 19th century women who catalogued the cosmos, Michelle Starr, Cnet News, March 7, 2016
  4. ^ Miss Leavitt in Pickering, Edward C. "Periods of 25 Variable Stars in the Small Magellanic Cloud" Harvard College Observatory Circular 173 (1912) 1–3.
  5. ^ Bunch, Bryan H. and Hellemans, Alexander (2004) The History of Science and Technology: A Browser's Guide to the Great Discoveries, Inventions, and the People Who Made Them, from the Dawn of Time to Today. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  6. ^ "Annie Jump Cannon -". www.projectcontinua.org. Retrieved 2016-03-31. 
  7. ^ Clark, David H. and Clark, Matthew D. H. (2004). Measuring the Cosmos: How Scientists Discovered the Dimensions of the Universe. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press.
  8. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter P" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 7 April 2011. 
  9. ^ "Miscellaneous". Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, Part 1. Smithsonian Institution, Board of Regents. 1890. p. 192. 
  10. ^ "Henry Draper Medal". National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 19 February 2011. 

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