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Edward Charles Pickering (director of the Harvard Observatory from 1877 to 1919) decided to hire women as skilled workers to process astronomical data. Among these women were Williamina Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Cecilia Payne and Antonia Maury. This staff came to be known as the Harvard Computers or, more derisively, as "Pickering's Harem". This was an example of what has been identified as the "harem effect" in the history and sociology of science.
It seems that several factors contributed to Pickering's decision to hire women instead of men. Among them was the fact that men were paid much more than women, so he could employ more staff with the same budget. This was relevant in a time when the amount of astronomical data was surpassing the capacity of the Observatories to process it.
The first woman hired was Williamina Fleming, who was working as a maid for Pickering. It seems that Pickering was increasingly frustrated with his male assistants and declared that even his maid could do a better job. He was then proven right as Fleming undertook her assigned chores efficiently. When the Harvard Observatory received in 1886 a generous donation from Mary Anna Palmer Draper, the widow of Henry Draper, Pickering decided to hire more female staff and put Fleming in charge of them. Some of the first women who were hired to work as computers had familial connections to the Harvard Observatory’s male staff. For instance, Anna Winlock, one of the first of the Harvard Computers, was the daughter of Joseph Winlock, the third director of the observatory and Pickering’s immediate predecessor.
The work done by the Harvard Computers was mainly clerical, including such tasks as classifying stars by comparing the photographs to known catalogs and reducing the photographs while accounting for things like atmospheric refraction in order to render the clearest possible image. Fleming herself described the work as “so nearly alike that there will be little to describe outside ordinary routine work of measurement, examination of photographs, and of work involved in the reduction of these observations”.
As a result of the work of the women "computers", Pickering published in 1890 the first Henry Draper Catalog, a catalog with more than 10,000 stars classified according to their spectrum. The majority of these classifications were done by Fleming. Pickering decided to hire Antonia Maury, a graduate from Vassar College, to reclassify some of the stars. Maury decided to go further and improved and redesigned the system of classification. It was published in 1897 but was largely ignored. Afterwards, Pickering decided to hire Cannon, a graduate of Wellesley College, to classify the southern stars. As Maury had done, Cannon also ended up redesigning the classification system of the spectra and developed the Harvard Classification Scheme, which constitutes the basis of the system used today.
Henrietta Swan Leavitt's insight that all the variable stars in the Small Magellanic Cloud are roughly the same distance from Earth, led to her discovering a direct relationship between the period of Cepheid variable stars and their intrinsic brightness. This discovery, in turn, led to the modern understanding of the true size of the universe, and Cepheid variables are still an essential tool for the measurement of cosmological distance.
Although some of Pickering's female staff were astronomy graduates, their wages were similar to those of unskilled workers. They usually earned between 25 and 50 cents per hour, more than a factory worker but less than a clerical one.
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