• Observations

Women in Astronomy: The Computers

Nuwanthika Fernando is an astronomy guide at Sydney Observatory. She recently completed her PhD at the University of Sydney studying the dynamics of satellite galaxy planes. To celebrate International Women’s Day in 2018 Nuwanthika looks at the computers.

‘Ours is a work of the night and day! . . .astronomical science now becomes universal! She knows no boundaries, no rank, no sex, no age! – Dorothea Klumpke, astronomer, 1899

Exploring space is a data intensive task, whether it is the observation and cataloguing of millions (if not billions) of celestial objects, or calculating the path of a spacecraft. In the ages before, or in the infancy of the computer, women filled these all-important roles in data reduction and analysis, making them the original ‘high-performance computers’.

Annie Jump Cannon and the Computers of the Harvard Observatory

Computers at the Harvard College Observatory in about 1891, including Henrietta Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon and Williamina Fleming. From Harvard College Observatory, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
The Harvard Observatory’s group of computers were first started when its head, Edward Pickering, was disappointed with the work of his male assistants, and hired his maid, Williamina Fleming. Fleming excelled at calculations and comparisons required, making major contributions in the way we understand white dwarf stars. The method of classification of stars according to their spectrum, was the idea of Annie Jump Cannon, another member of this group. The group manually classified over 350,000 stars, produced extensive catalogues, and identified numerous new stellar objects, but their wages were lower than the average clerical worker at Harvard. Both Fleming and Cannon were made members of the Royal Astronomical Society for their contribution to astronomy and went on to become curators of Astronomical Photographs of Harvard University.

Katherine Johnston and the Computers of NASA

The women computers of NASA in 1953. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The early days of the NASA’s space program was fueled by both mechanical and human computers. Katherine Johnston, an African-American member of the female computing staff at Langley’s Flight Research Division, charted the orbits of Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. The astronauts had such faith in the speed and accuracy of their calculations that John Glenn insisted that the ‘human computers’ check the calculations of the mechanical computers. As the space race with the Soviet Union heated up, NASA hired talented astronomers and mathematicians, without inhibitions about their gender, race or colour, but the women who showed the Apollo astronauts the way to the Moon still took a back seat to the men of the program.

Winsome Bellamy and the Computers of Sydney Observatory

The staff of Sydney Observatory in the mid-1950s. The women here are (L to R) Margaret Colville, unknown, maybe Barbara Dignam and Winsome Bellamy. If you can help us identify or confirm the identities of these women please leave a comment below. Photo and copyright Ros Madden ©, all rights reserved.

When the Astrographic Catalogue was commissioned in the 1890s, Australian observatories had the richest section of the skies to map out. To engage in this mammoth task, the Melbourne, Perth and Sydney Observatories hired female staff as ‘star measurers’ or ‘astrographic computers’. Through the period of 1916-1968, the 22 computers of the Sydney Observatory classified around 740,000 stars, processing 1400 plates of observations. Winsome Bellamy, who joined the Sydney group in 1948, catalogued around 43,000 stars (twice, if counting the positive and reverse measurements taken to maintain accuracy). Despite being an integral part of the Observatory staff the computers were often denied access to the main telescopes and instruments, and they were rarely acknowledged in the papers produced from the data they supplied.

The contributions of these women have been buried under the mounds of work they produced. Often uncredited, underpaid, and under-employed, they fueled astronomy and space technology forward into data-driven fields, while defying stereotypes and expectations of society. Our next post will explore the work of astrophysicists of modern society.



T. Stevenson (2014). Making Visible the First Women in Astronomy in Australia: The Measurers and Computers Employed for the Astrographic Catalogue . Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia, 31, e018 doi:10.1017/pasa.2014.12.

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