When a 23-year-old single mother started working as a maid for Harvard professor Edward C. Pickering, class of 1865, he didn’t expect her to change our understanding of the stars. It was 1879 and Williamina P. S. Fleming needed work: She had immigrated to Boston a year earlier, only to be abandoned by her husband shortly thereafter. Back in Scotland, Fleming had been a schoolteacher — she was a quick learner, and she began teaching when she was just 14.
Pickering hired Fleming shortly after he became the director of the Harvard College Observatory. Pickering wanted to gather information about all the stars that are visible from Earth and organize it in a massive catalog. He started taking thousands of glass plate photographs through his telescope. But to process all the data, he needed a team of scientists to examine each photo, correct
the image for the distorting effect of Earth’s atmosphere, and then record the properties of the stars in spreadsheets. The new data overwhelmed the small group at the Observatory. Pickering was so frustrated by the slowness and sloppiness of his male staff that, according to legend, he yelled that his Scottish maid could do better. Fleming, like a real-life Will Hunting, had her chance.
The real story, however, is a bit more complex than a feel-good movie plot. Before his outburst, Pickering had some idea of Fleming’s talent. Pickering’s wife, the daughter of former Harvard president Jared Sparks, was so impressed by her new maid’s intellect that she told Pickering he should hire her. This wasn’t terribly radical: Women had worked at the Observatory since at least 1875, and others volunteered even earlier.
Pickering also had an economic incentive to hire more women: He could pay Fleming a fraction of what he would have to pay a man, between $0.25 and $0.50 an hour, allowing him to hire more people to look at his glass plates.
So, in 1881, Fleming joined the staff of the Harvard Observatory, where she analyzed thousands of photos of stars. She was one of the first of what became a group of 80 women, known as the “Harvard computers” — the word computer originally referred to people who were so good at math they “computed” for a living. Fleming worked Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m., sometimes going home and working more hours into the evening. Her arm was so sore from writing that, on doctor’s orders, she hired a masseuse to come to her home each week.
In 1886, Pickering put Fleming in charge of the Harvard computers working on star classification. Fleming and the women who worked with her had far more freedom than the label “computer” suggests. Fleming was able to hire more women, and she later edited all of the publications that the Observatory printed. She repeatedly challenged male professors when they made mistakes, and, at least in her diary, seemed satisfied with her academic freedom: “I am more than contented to have such excellent opportunities for work in so many different directions.” On at least one occasion, some of the female staff took over the daily work of the laboratory while Pickering was on a four-month-long summer vacation.
In 1888, Fleming discovered the Horsehead Nebula. Over the course of her career, and without any formal astronomy education, she discovered 10 novae, 52 nebulae, and 310 variable stars.
As astronomers go, the Harvard Observatory and its large female staff were famous. Skeptics called them “Pickering’s harem,” but the women scientists still impressed their male colleagues with their talent — in 1906, Fleming became the first American woman member of the Royal Astronomical Society. She wasn’t the only famous computer: Henrietta S. Leavitt even had Nobel Prize buzz. Newspapers around the globe covered the Harvard computers. Why, then, were these once-famous women scientists forgotten?
In the 1980s, sociologist Arlene K. Daniels coined the term “invisible work” to describe the kinds of unpaid labor traditionally done by women in the home. But this kind of invisibility shrouds women’s labor outside the home, too. Because scientific work is measured in papers and conferences, the labor behind the scenes is often undervalued.
Fleming was still mired in the domestic tasks that were expected of women. “My home life is necessarily different from that of other officers of the University,” she wrote in her diary in 1900, “since all housekeeping cares rest on me, in addition to those of providing the means to meet their expenses.” While her male colleagues were free to spend their time taking photographs and theorizing about space, Fleming was at the market, cooking for her son (who she put through M.I.T.), and caring for her staff. Even at work, Fleming spent most of her working hours toiling on calculations.
“Looking after the routine pieces of mundane work which have to be kept progressing,” she wrote, “has consumed so much of my time during the past few years that little is left for the particular investigations in which I am most interested.” Fleming’s duties as a computer and an editor, thankless work that makes research possible, limited her time writing papers and theorizing.
During her life, though she was stressed by constant and unappreciated labor, Fleming was not invisible. But after Pickering’s death, the memory of the Harvard computers began to vanish slowly from history. Perhaps it has something to do with names — Fleming and her colleagues were astronomers by any definition, but their label of “computer” defined them only by their menial work, rather than their extraordinary discoveries.
—Magazine writer Drew C. Pendergrass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @pendergrassdrew. This is the first installment of his column about invisible labor in science.