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3b.  Pickering’s harem

A postdoctoral student of the eminent astronomer Vera Rubin once remarked: “American astronomy became preeminent because of two discoveries: Hale discovered money and Pickering discovered women” (Rubin, 2005).  Pickering recruited up to 40 women to work for him to reduce the stellar data from the large number of photographic plates accumulated by the Harvard photographic surveys (figure 4).  These women worked at various times from 1885 to 1920 and in the beginning were paid 25 cents an hour.  They labored seven hours a day for six days a week receiving $10.50 pay per week with a month’s vacation a year.  The work was too tedious and paid too little to attract any men (Johnson, 2005). 


Figure 4.  Pickering’s harem.  From Trimble (2000).

These human computers were referred to as “Pickering’s Harem.”  They included Annie Jump Cannon (1863-1941)4, Wilhelmina Fleming (1857-1911)5, Antonia Maury (1866-1952) 6, and Henrietta Leavitt, all of whom became famous in their own right, though the credit bestowed on them was certainly less than they deserved in their lifetimes.  When Henrietta Leavitt was appointed to the permanent staff at Harvard College Observatory in 1902, she was paid a salary of 30 cents per hour, the equivalent $6.65 per hour in 2005 (Rubin, 2005).  Pickering himself only earned $3400 annually, and he worked all day at his administrative duties and frequently at night on observing projects.  It is estimated he only earned $2 per hour.  From all indications, the women were generally happy in their jobs, though they would have liked better pay.  They were treated with respect by Pickering, and he tried to make their jobs interesting and stimulating (Johnson, 2005).

Fleming became the curator of Harvard’s photographic plate collection, and she was in charge of classifying stars according to their spectra.  Fleming, Cannon, and Maury worked on the Henry Draper Catalog.  They all worked in the same small second floor room at the Harvard College Observatory.  This room is still intact, though somewhat modernized.  It is not marked by a plaque.


3c. Leavitt’s early career 1894-1908

When Leavitt first started working at the observatory as a volunteer, she was assigned the task of recording the magnitude of stars by using a microscope and measuring the size of the stars’ disks on the photographic plates.  The plates were large negatives with black star images on a grey white background.  She compared the star sizes against those whose magnitudes had already been determined.  Leavitt was also asked to look for variable stars.  This was done by making a positive image of a plate taken of the same star field at a different time.  This positive image was then exactingly aligned with the negative plate, and those stars whose brightness was constant canceled out while those stars whose brightness had changed, stood out (Jones, 2005; Leavitt, 1908).  Leavitt had a talent for this type of work and did it religiously until 1896 when she left for two years of traveling in Europe.

Leavitt conferred briefly with Pickering when she returned from Europe and promised to finish a manuscript on her work, but she moved to Beloit, Wisconsin, where her father was the minister of a church.  She worked as an art assistant at Beloit College.  In early 1902 Leavitt wrote Pickering asking if she could resume her work from Wisconsin and asked that her notebooks be sent to her for her to complete the manuscript she had left unfinished.  She mentioned she had health problems and had trouble with her hearing.  She also noted cold weather aggravated her problems and requested Pickering’s help in finding an astronomy position in a warm location. Pickering promptly offered her a full time job at 30 cents an hour because of the quality of her work.  Due to unexplained family problems and side trips, Leavitt did not arrive for work at Harvard until August 1902 and then was only able to work 4 hours a day (Jones, 2005).   

Leavitt did not become a permanent member of the Harvard College Observatory staff until the summer of 1903 when she arranged for her permanent move from Beloit to Cambridge.  In 1904 she discovered many variable stars in the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC).  This so stimulated her that she began to search for variable stars with increased zeal and discovered hundreds of them in the Magellanic Clouds.  She lived with her uncle Erasmus in a large villa near the observatory.  Periodically her results were reported in various Harvard publications (Table 1).  She often went to Beloit for Christmas and frequently took winter voyages. 



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