Dig up the legacy of Harvard, the singer of ‘computers’

Alex Newman/PRI

In a narrow of the University of Harvard under-ground, a team of women is working to document the rich history of women astronomers.

More than 40 years before women were granted the right to vote, the women “computers” at Harvard College Observatory have been making major astronomical discoveries.

Between 1885 and 1927, the observatory of employment, approximately 80 women who have studied glass plate photographs of the stars. They found the galaxies and the nebulae and created methods to measure distance in space.

They were famous – newspapers wrote about them, they have published scientific articles under their own name. But they were almost into oblivion during the next century.

But a recent discovery of thousands of pages of calculations that a modern group of women has led to a renewed interest in their heritage.

Surrounded by steel cabinets stuffed with hundreds of thousands of glass-plate photographs of the sky, curator Lindsay Smith, Zrull shows the best of the Harvard Plate collection of Batteries.

Each glass plate is stored in a paper jacket and initialled to show who has worked on it.

But for decades, no one has kept track of the woman computer full of names. Therefore, Smith, Zrull started a spreadsheet about 18 months ago and adds initials when she discovers new and tries to locate the full names of the Harvard university historical documents.

“I’m gradually piece together who was who, who was where when, what they were studying,” Smith, Zrull said.

It has about 130 names of women. About 40 are still unknown.

She points to a plate of glass and crowded with notes in four different colors. “One of these days, I’m going to figure of which Mr E. M. is.”

Alex Newman/PRI

Not all the initials belong to the computers. His list has grown to include assistants and, in some cases, astronomers and the women who helped with their husbands.

Dozens of women have worked on the glass plate in photography at the university of Harvard. “What is rather astonishing number considering women were still trying to get the social approval to go to college, even less working in the field of science,” Smith, Zrull said.

She now oversees a digitization project of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics to make the plates of glass available in the world.

Since 2005, a custom-built scanner has been making its way through the collection of over half a million plates dating from 1885 to 1993. The team scans 400 plates per day – they are on the half-way point now and Smith, Zrull estimates over the three years of rest.”People have forgotten that they were there”

Since the analysis is continued last year, Smith, Zrull turned its attention to mobile phones owned by women and computers, and realized many of the books were missing.

Courtesy Of Harvard College Observatory Plate Stacks

“I started doing a little digging and finally stumbled on some proof that one can have in the boxes for off-site storage, which is very common for libraries around Harvard.”

Smith, Zrull found 118 boxes, each containing between 20 and 30 pounds.

Inside were more notebooks of the share of women in computing, as well as notebooks of astronomers who preceded the photography and hand-drawn sketches of the planets and the moon.

“The people do not know that they existed when they were in storage,” Smith, Zrull said. “As the commissioners came here, I guess people have forgotten that they were there.”

To resurrect their legacy, she sought the help of librarians at the center, which was planned to go through the boxes and begin to labor in the cataloguing process. Project PHAEDRA (the Preservation of the university of Harvard at the Beginning of the Data and the Research in Astronomy) was born.’OK, we’ve hit pay dirt’

But then, there are two quick discoveries in the plate batteries – Smith Zull found a handwritten catalogue of the books from 1973.

Alex Newman/PRI

“At a certain point in 1973, someone who we assume is named “Joe Timko’ is passed by all of these boxes at the element level and recorded as much information as he could find,” said the head librarian of the Song Book. They had no sense of why it has been done”, but we thought, ‘OK, we’ve hit pay dirt.'”
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Then someone found a typed version of the 1973 catalog, with a Post-it saying “Finally done it! Rachel.” On the last page of a handwritten path with a file of the computer, a spreadsheet on a Harvard server, which had not been consulted since 2001.

The discovery has accelerated the digitization project by months, if not years. The librarians, who were only 30 characters on each box, machine-readable data, they could quickly turn into real recordings.

“Thank you Joe Timko and, possibly, Rachel, wherever they are,” said Book.

Alex Newman/PRI

The library has completed the transcription of about 200 volumes. There are more and more numerous – about 2300 – but the work has started. Now, the laptops of two women are listed on the Smithsonian Transcription Center website.

Book hope the public will help transcribe the books, but expects that it will still be years before everything is readable.

“You’ll be able to do a full-text search of this research,” Book said. “If you are looking for Williamina Fleming, you’re not going to just find a mention of her in a publication where it was not the author of his work. You will find on his work.””She is the only one that has really found’

Fleming is the first woman known computer Harvard. Fleming emigrated to the united States from Scotland in the late 1870s.

During the pregnancy, she was abandoned by her husband and found work as a housekeeper in the home of Edward Pickering, director of the observatory. In 1881, Pickering hired Fleming to work in the observatory.

She is going to discover the Horsehead Nebula, to develop a system of classification of stars according to hydrogen observed in the spectra and lead more women to computers.

Courtesy Daina Boquin, Wolbach Library

Wolbach Library has unveiled a new poster at the beginning of July, showcasing Fleming’s work, including the logbook containing the nebula of the discovery.

“When the [Horsehead Nebula] was discovered, it was just a little” area of nebulosity in a semi-circular indentation,” said librarian Maria McEachern, who helped the team to sort through the notebooks.

“Years later that it became known as the Horsehead Nebula,” he said. The male scientists at another institution who nominated him, he is the one who got credit.

“It wasn’t even until recently that people have made more scholarships and discover that, yes, it is she who has really found it.”
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But Fleming was just the first computer to make its mark on the astronomy.

Pickering hired Henrietta Swan Leavitt in 1895. She has been in charge of the measure and catalogue the brightness of stars. His major discovery – a way to allow astronomers to measure the distance in space, now known as the “Leavitt Law”.

Annie Jump Cannon joined the observatory in 1896 and worked there until 1940. Cannon created the Harvard Classification System to classify stars, which is the basis of the system, still in use today.

Courtesy Of Harvard College Observatory Plate Stacks

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin came to the Observatory in 1923 and obtained a doctorate from Radcliffe College (FC) in 1925, but it has struggled to get the recognition from Harvard.

For years, she had no official position, acting as a technical deputy director Harlow Shapley from 1927 to 1938. It was not until the mid-1950s that she became a teacher and, later, the first woman to head a department at Harvard university.

And because of Smith, Zrull of the discovery, the transcription of each of these women’s books are in progress. ‘They have always been there”

“I like to think that resilience goes a long way, but I think that some of these women go a little above and beyond what we think of when we think of how to overcome things,” Book said.

Both Book and Smith, Zrull says they want to give young girls more role models, such as the Harvard computers, models that were not well known when they were young.

Alex Newman/PRI

“Yes, look at Sally Ride, look at the modern women who people associate with space science, but further back,” Book said. “They have always been there. As long as they could be, they were there.”

Smith, Zrull – who hated history as a teen – said that it was difficult to find women who have encouraged her.

“It took me a long time to start to find women that I felt were like me, who has done important things,” Smith Zrull said.

“I think more women need to know, you are not alone, you can do it.”

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