Episode 58: Harvard’s Human Computers Reach for the Stars

During an era more associated with the Wild West, a group of women in Cambridge made historic advances in the field of astronomy, discovering new stars and fundamental principles about how our universe works.  In the beginning, they were treated as menial clerical workers and paid a fraction of what their male counterparts got.  Only decades later did they win academic respect, earning advanced degrees and finally the title Professor.  They were the Human Computers of the Harvard University Observatory.

Harvard’s Human Computers

Harvard computers pose in 1918. Photo courtesy of the Harvard College Observatory.
Henrietta Swan Leavitt (r) and Annie Jump Cannon (l) in 1913. Photo courtesy of the Harvard College Observatory.
  • Hat tip to the Self Rescuing Princess Society blog for first introducing us to Williamina Fleming and the Human Computers.
  • As long as we’re at it, some praise for the children’s book Rejected Princesses for sharing Annie Jump Cannon with the next generation.
  • Williamina Fleming’s journals from 1900.
  • kept by Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon, and Cecilia Payne, or the volumes yourself.
  • Two views of a nebula discovered by Williamina Fleming.
A nebula discovered by Williamina Fleming. Photo by Sara Wager

Featured Historic Site

This week’s historic site is the Gibson House Museum, on Beacon Street in the Back Bay.  Built in 1860, it’s a perfectly preserved relic of Victorian Boston.  Nothing inside has been touched since its eccentric owner died in 1954, and by that time he had already spent decades planning to make it a museum of the Back Bay known by his wealthy mother and grandmother.  Lucky visitors might be treated to an upstairs/downstairs tour, which focuses on the experience of household servants at the Gibson House.  When you visit, imagine that the astronomer Williamina Fleming once worked in a similar house during the same era.  The museum is open Wed-Sun year round, for guided tours only at 1:00, 2:00, and 3:00.

Upcoming Event

On Thursday, December 14, spend an evening with Jeff Belanger, an author who describes himself as a paranormal researcher and “legend tripper.”  He will be exploring the darker side of the holiday season, complete with a warning that the presentation may not be appropriate for children.  The talk will be held at the Needham History Center at 7pm.  From their website:

There are many Yuletide monsters and legends that have almost been lost to the ages. Explore the history of these ghostly holiday traditions, some dating back more than two thousand years – Krampus, the Belsnickel, Tomtens.  And who can forget the most famous ghost story of all time, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”?