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The women, from outwardly feisty to quietly mutinous, who made the Edwardian era so colorful.

Edwardian Women in STEM: The Harvard Computers

Edward Charles Pickering and his Computers standing in front of Building C at the Harvard College Observatory, 13 May 1913.
Edward Charles Pickering and his Computers standing in front of Building C at the Harvard College Observatory, 13 May 1913. L-R (rear): Margaret Harwood, Mollie O’Reilly, Pickering, Edith Gill, Annie Jump Cannon, Evelyn Leland, Florence Cushman, Marion Whyte, Grace Brooks — L-R (front): Arville Walker, Johanna Mackie, Alta Carpenter, Mabel Gill, Ida Woods

This year has been marked by the emergence of fantastic stories of women in science, most remarkable being the two books released this year about the role of women in the Space Race–Nathalia Holt’s Rise of the Rocket Girls and Margot Lee Shetterley’s Hidden Figures. Having spent the last two and half months of the summer working on a NASA facility, where I uncovered more stories of the diversity of our involvement with exploration of the heavens, I don’t know why I was so surprised by the story of women computers. After all, I mentioned them in a novel I completed a little over a year ago, where my protagonist visits the Radcliffe Observatory in 1910s Oxford.

“Astronomers,” wrote Helen Leah Reed in an article published in the New England Magazine in the 1890s, “have always welcomed to their ranks women of genius like Caroline Herschell, Mary Somerville, and Maria Mitchell; and various European and American observatories have of late years employed not a few women computers.”1 However, women astronomers only found two career paths open to them: as professors in women’s colleges, or as assistants in large observatories.2

The employment of women began in the post-Civil War era, and as the nature of business became more complex, this spurred the emergence of the white collar worker who was formally trained in basic business skills like bookkeeping and typing. These very skills were considered transferable to the skilled work of computing. Though women were frequently paid less than male white collar workers, by 1875, “one out of six hundred office workers was female, and within a decade, women would fill one out of fifty jobs.”3

The employment of women as computers by the Harvard Observatory began in 1875, when Anna Winlock approached the new director for a position. Winlock was the eldest daughter of Joseph Winlock, the former director of the Observatory and former superintendent of the National Almanac, who had died suddenly, leaving his family nearly destitute. She was hired at 25 cents an hour, and was soon joined by Selina Bond, the daughter of her father’s predecessor, and Rhoda Saunders, a recent high school graduate recommended to the observatory by the Harvard President.4

When Edward C. Pickering became the director, he accelerated the hiring of women computers, and by 1880, the entire staff was made up of women. Pickering was considered liberal for his hiring of women, but he continued to offer them half the pay of male computers, declaring “to attain the greatest efficiency, a skillful observer should never be obliged to spend time on what could be done equally well by an assistant at a much lower salary.”5 Some women were offered 30-35 cents an hour, but all worked “six days a week, averaging seven hours daily, which they could divide by spending five at the Observatory and two at home in afternoon or evening.”6 Later, undoubtedly experiencing a twinge of guilt over the excellence of his computing staff, Pickering revised his earlier statements on salary, protesting “against the injustice of using skilled personnel year after year on the same wage scale.”7

The government was slower to hire women computers, with only Maria Mitchell and another woman working for the Coast Survey and the Nautical Almanac in 1893, and the Naval Observatory not hiring a female computer until 1901.8 Nevertheless, the female computers at Harvard (soon dubbed “Pickering’s Harem” as a fond, yet very telling moniker that revealed opinions about women in the male-dominated field), made a number of stellar discoveries in astrophysics, such as “Mrs. Fleming’s discovery that variable stars of a certain type may be proved variable by the bright lines in their spectra, and Miss Maury’s discovery that Beta Aurigae is a close binary, proved so from the study of its spectrum.”9 Helen Leah Reed describes their work as falling into three responsibilities:

  1. Computing, based on the work of others. For twenty years some women have always been included in the corps of Harvard computers.
  2. Original deductions (not necessarily star-work). Work of this kind has been carried on chiefly by special students of the Harvard Annex. In this class of work must be named a longitude campaign—probably the only longitude campaign ever conducted wholly by women, whereby Miss Byrd and Miss Whitney determined the precise distance in longitude between the Smith College and Harvard College Observatories. Miss Byrd is now director of the Smith College Observatory, and Miss Whitney is Maria Mitchell’s successor at Vassar. In this second class of work may be included also the making of a standard catalogue of the stars near the North Pole by Miss Anna Winlock, the daughter of a former director of the Harvard Observatory.
  3. The Henry Draper Memorial work, and four other investigations, less extensive, though similar in kind to those provided for by the Draper fund.

Pickering’s involvement with women in the field was enhanced by the financial contributions of Mrs. Anna Palmer Draper, whose husband, Dr. Henry Draper, who was a pioneer in the work of photographing stellar spectra. After his death, Mrs. Draper “at first thought of establishing in New York, an observatory equipped with his superb apparatus, and liberally endowed for the purpose of continuing the investigations begun by him in spectrum photography. But, realizing the importance of similar experiments already going on at the Harvard College Observatory, early in 1886 she placed at Professor Pickering’s service Dr. Draper’s eleven-inch telescope, and furnished sufficient money to test thoroughly certain experiments recently begun by him.”10

The first year of the Draper Memorial work at the observatory satisfied Mrs. Draper to the extent of enlarging the scope of her endowment, and Pickering, his lab, and his computers were tasked with cataloging the spectra of all stars north of—200, of the 6th magnitude, or brighter; creating a more extensive catalogue of spectra of stars brighter than the 8th magnitude; and a detailed study of the spectra of the bright stars; including a classification of the spectra, a determination of the wave lengths of the lines, a comparison with terrestrial spectra, and an application of the results to the measurements of the approach and recession of the stars.11 Though the work was conducted under the direction of Pickering and his astronomers, the “examination of the plates, the measurement of the position and the brightness of the stars, the discussion of the results obtained from the plates, and the forming of catalogues from these results,” were carried out by Mrs. Mina Fleming and her eight assistants.12

Antonia Maury, a graduate of Vassar College, conducted her own experiments under the Draper Memorial namely, the “detailed study and classification of the spectra of the brighter stars photographed with the eleven-inch telescope.13 Maury examined the photographs of the stars “visible in the latitude of the Harvard Observatory and discovered that Beta Aurigae was a close binary revolving in four days. The doubling of the lines in the spectrum of this object [wa]s similar to the doubling of the lines in Zeta Ursae Majoris, discovered to be a binary by Prof. Pickering.” Maury also investigated the spectra of stars of the Orion type. Another computer, Eve Leland, “measured 40,000 stars of about the tenth magnitude uniformly distributed over the sky, and these measurements will be reduced to a uniform scale to furnish standards of stellar magnitude.”14

Harvard’s women computers also worked with international stations, such as the station at Chosica in Peru, established in 1889. This station “afforded unexampled opportunities for photographing the entire heavens from pole to pole….All the plates taken in Peru are sent to the Harvard Observatory, and are there examined as above described…[and] the records of two valuable original observations made at the Chosica Station by Messrs. S. I. & M. H. Bailey have also been reduced, catalogued, and prepared for the printer by the Draper Memorial women assistants.”15

Besides the “Draper Memorial” work, four other Harvard Observatory investigations were published with the aid of the women assistants.

  1. The catalogue of 1,000 stars within 10 of the North Pole (of these only forty are in other catalogues.)
  2. A study of the Pleiades. This group will probably always be used by astronomers as a test and means of comparison with the work of their predecessors. The Harvard Observatory aim is to furnish a measure of photographic brightness of a portion of the stars in this group, so that the results reached by other observers may be reduced to a uniform scale.
  3. Trails of equatorial stars. Here the object is to determine the photographic intensity of all bright stars within two degrees of the equator
  4. The enumeration of all the nebulae photographed in a given portion of the sky. This investigation shows the probability of a marked addition to the number of known nebulae. Photography has already greatly increased the limits of the nebulae in Orion. A few years ago, Prof. W. H. Pickering found this nebulous region to include the sword handle, and more lately it has been found to include a wide area extending north and south from this.

The scope of women’s work in astronomy was varied, but paid work was limited by the sexist conventions of the day. However, as seen with the release of the aforementioned books by Holt and Shetterley, the film adapatation of Shetterley’s book, as well as other stories that are emerging of women scientists of today and of the past, these “hidden figures” prove that our imaginings of the past will always be challenged and expanded! For more photos of Harvard’s women computers, visit Harvard’s collection of images devoted to the Observatory’s history.

  1. Helen Leah Reed. “Women’s Work at the Harvard Observatory,” The National Exposition Souvenir: What America Owes to Women, ed. by Lydia Hoyt Farmer, Buffalo: C. W. Moulton, 271.
  2. Gabriele Kass-Simon. Women of Science: Righting the Record, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 86
  3. David Alan Grier. When Computers Were Human, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 82
  4. Ibid, 83
  5. Ibid
  6. Bessie Zaban Jones and Lyle Gifford Boyd The Harvard College Observatory: The First Four Directorships, 1839-1919, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 390
  7. Ibid
  8. Grier, 84
  9. Reed, 272
  10. Ibid, 274
  11. Ibid, 275
  12. Ibid
  13. Ibid, 276
  14. Ibid
  15. Ibid, 277
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Fascinating Edwardian Women for Women’s History Month


Reach back into Edwardian Promenade’s archives for a series of posts on fascinating Edwardian women!

Cornelia Sorabji

Cornelia Sorabji

Though Indian (Parsi) and a woman, Cornelia Sorabji accomplished the unimaginable in becoming the first woman to practice law in India and Britain. Sorabji was born into a large family of nine children, her father, Reverend Sorabji Karsedji, a Parsi Christian, and her mother, Francina Ford, an Indian who had been adopted and raised by a British couple. Sorabji’s mother was devoted to the cause of women’s education, and made her mark upon Indian society with the establishment of several girls’ schools in Puna (then known as Poona). It was through her mother’s contacts that opened the door for Sorabji to become the first woman to take the Bachelor of Civil Laws exam at Oxford University in 1892.

Lutie Lytle

Lutie Lytle

Though Lutie A. Lytle (1871/5-1950) was not the first black woman lawyer in America (the second, in fact), she was the first black woman to practice law in the South, when in 1897, she passed the bar in Tennessee. She then moved to Topeka, Kansas, where she then became the first black woman lawyer in that state. Her path to becoming a lawyer was extraordinary and interesting in and of itself. The child of “Exodusters” (a term applied to black Americans who migrated to Kansas after the end of Reconstruction), Lutie’s interest in politics and the law were fostered by her father John R. Lytle’s involvement in the Populist Party. Though her father’s campaign to become Topeka’s city jailer failed, Lutie entered into Populist politics and was appointed an assistant enrolling clerk for the Kansas legislature.

Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins

America is the land of dreams and opportunity, and Florence Foster Jenkins was wealthy enough to take advantage of this. Born to wealthy Pennsylvanians, Florence expressed an interest in music at an early age. She took piano lessons during her childhood and adolescence, but when at adulthood, she hoped to study abroad, her father refused to foot the bill. In retaliation, the headstrong Florence eloped with a physician named Frank Thornton Jenkins, no doubt hoping this would give her some measure on independence. Unfortunately, Florence’s hasty marriage ended in a bitter divorce, but when her father died in 1909, she inherited his entire fortune. At forty-one, Florence had the independence and the means to fulfill her dreams of becoming a professional opera singer.

(apparently, her life is going to be made into a film starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant!)

Guilhermina Suggia

“I can say with no doubt that there hasn’t been a cellist with the merit like that of the artist I’ve been teaching. She has nothing to fear with comparisons to her male colleagues. Mademoiselle Suggia, with high musical intelligence and a complete knowledge of the technique, has the right to be considered, in the world of the Arts, a celebrity.” Julius Klengel (1902)

Helen Gwynne-Vaughan

Helen Gwynne-Vaughan

Helen Gwynne-Vaughan represented the flower of the New Woman–gently-bred, but very well educated–and further established herself as one of the many heroines of WWI. Before the war, Gwynne-Vaughan made her mark as a botanist and mycologist, earning her Doctor of Science in 1907 at the age of twenty-eight. She was soon given her own research school of fungal cytology at Birkbeck College in London, and in 1909, she was named head of the botany department.

Alice Guy-Blaché

Alice Guy-Blaché

In 1894 she accepted a position as secretary with Léon Gaumont at a still-photography company. This business soon went under, but Gaumont, bought the inventory and established one of France’s first motion-picture companies. Alice followed Gaumont to his newly-formed L. Gaumont et Cie and rather than remain a mere secretary, she became his head of production, directing, producing, writing and/or overseeing the company’s films and reelers between the years 1896 and 1906.

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GUEST POST: Lena Ashwell: Actress, Patriot, Pioneer by Margaret Leask

Ashwell in title role of Leah Kleschna, New Theatre, 1905
Ashwell in title role of Leah Kleschna, New Theatre, 1905

Margaret Leask is a freelance researcher and theater historian as well as a former arts administrator in Australia and England. As an oral historian, she has recorded and archived interviews for the National Film and Sound Archive, the National Institute of Dramatic Art, and the Sydney Theater Company.

For Ellen Terry, actress-manager Lena Ashwell (1869-1957) was ‘a passionate voice’. From her first appearance on stage in 1891 to the end of her life, Ashwell was determined to make the theatre accessible and relevant to everyone, prompting G.B. Shaw to describe her as possessing an ‘awakeningly truthful mind as well as an engaging personality.’

An inspiring and strong woman in a rapidly changing world, she was crucial both for the advancement of women in the English theatre and for the formation of the National Theatre. She made her name in H.A. Jones’ Mrs Dane’s Defence in 1900 and presented ‘new drama’, including Cecily Hamilton’s Diana of Dobsons (1908) and J.B. Fagan’s The Earth (1909) at the Kingsway and Savoy Theatres, as well as being active in the Actresses’ Franchise League and a committed founding member of the British Drama League. When war was declared on 4 August 1914, with amazing rapidity, Ashwell, Decima and Eva Moore and Eve Haverfield formed what Ashwell later described as a ‘really wonderful and most comic organization’, the Women’s Emergency Corps.

Ashwell as Diana of Dobsons
Ashwell as Diana of Dobsons

A temporary office was set up in Robert Street, Adelphi; letters were sent to the press and a public meeting convened at the Shaftesbury Theatre on 7 August. The Corps’ first task was to create a register, for use by any authority requiring such services, of all women, with their particular skills, who could help the war effort. The list included cooks, interpreters, crêche and mother carers, stores’ distributors, clothing collectors and distributors, carers of horses and riders, motor drivers and ‘all women trained in any capacity’. Immediately, many hundreds of women offered their services and women’s suffrage took a back seat while Britons adjusted to a changed world.

On 4 September the WEC had 10,000 women registered and government departments, railway companies, and business houses had been informed of competent unemployed women available for work previously done by men. Ashwell also established the Three Arts Club Emergency Relief Fund, recognising female arts workers would be particularly hard hit by the war’s impact on employment. August was traditionally a time when many London theatres were closed for summer and suggestions were made to halve admission prices and actors’ salaries; already many were on the breadline. In co-operation with organisations including the Actors’ Benevolent Fund, Ashwell hoped to help those in urgent need to obtain paid employment; to give training for such employment and maintenance when required; and to obtain and administer grants from existing funds for the relief of such cases.

Lena Ashwell was one of the first to suggest artists be gainfully employed to boost troop morale by providing entertainment. After initial, official, resistance to the idea, she was thrilled that, ‘on one never-to-be-forgotten day, when I had quite lost hope of the drama and music of the country being regarded as anything but useless, Lady Rodney called on behalf of the Women’s Auxiliary Committee of the Y.M.C.A. She had returned from France, and came from Her Highness Princess Helena Victoria, Committee Chairman, to ask if it was possible for a concert party to go to Havre.’

Ashwell had close connections with the royal family (she was married to Dr Henry Simson, the royal gynecologist who delivered the future Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret), and no doubt she told the princess of her despair and desire to help troops and artists. A request from Her Highness was less easy for officials to ignore. Ashwell obtained support from a friend to cover expenses for the first concert party while Helena Victoria and her committee made arrangements with the War Office: ‘owing to the very suffering state of men at Base Camps who had passed through a very difficult period of fighting, and were to be at the Base for rest and further training, this experiment of sending recreation should be made.’

Lena Ashwell YMCA Concert party
Lena Ashwell YMCA Concert party

For the duration of the war, Ashwell auditioned artists and prepared thousands of concerts and performances in YMCA camps and hospitals and on ships at the Front and in firing line zones. Between 1915 and 1919 over 600 artists, in parties of up to six singers, instrumentalists and entertainers gave three concerts a day all over France, in Belgium, Malta, Egypt and Palestine. Over £100,000 was raised through donations, concerts in England and colourful events to pay for this project and there were few soldiers who missed experiencing the comfort from home represented by these programmes. When peace was declared, her Lena Ashwell Players set about taking regular theatre performances into local communities throughout London and beyond. Long before educational drama and public subsidy for the arts were realities, she engaged local authorities in the provision of facilities and support for her work.

The above is just a brief sample of Lena Ashwell’s extraordinary life and commitment to a better world, through participation in the arts, as an actress, manager and advocate. Although she wrote four books about her work (including Modern Troubadours about her wartime experience and an autobiography, Myself a Player), her achievements have been largely unsung. However, with the publication of Margaret Leask’s biography, Lena Ashwell: Actress, Patriot, Pioneer, by the University of Hertfordshire Press and the Society for Theatre Research in 2012, there is now the opportunity to appreciate Lena Ashwell in the historical and cultural contexts in which she worked and which she helped to transform.

Lena Ashwell: Actress, Patriot, Pioneer by Margaret Leask

The book was short-listed for the 2013 Theatre Book Prize in London. One of the judges, Penelope Keith, called it “a real page turner”! The Times Literary Supplement review, 28 June 2013, concludes: “This biography is certainly a counterpoint to simplistic narratives of English theatre in the twentieth century; when asking how, and why, we have ended up with a multifaceted theatre industry, Lena Ashwell’s career is surely part of the answer.”

Purchase Dr. Leask’s biography of Lena Ashwell from: Indiebound | B & N | Powell’s | Amazon | Amazon UK | Scribd