The commercial and critical success of 2016’s Hidden Figures drew much-needed attention to the all-but-forgotten, amazing tale of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and the other NASA “computers” who played a significant role in America sending men into space- which is both needed and thrilling…but what if I told you that they weren’t the first women to defy the odds and revolutionize their field of study?
It’s true. In the late 1800’s, the Harvard Observatory was busy amassing photographic plates of the stars – not only from North America, but Peru, South Africa, New Zealand, and Chile. In the Andes, Harvard astronomers ferried the plates packed in crates down a mountain on the backs of mules. Once the data returned to Harvard, Edward Pickering, the man in charge of the Observatory, realized he would need a ton of help to catalogue and analyze the massive influx.
But that’s not the surprising part. The surprising part is, in the 1880s, he collected a team of women to do the job.
Pickering had an undergraduate degree from Harvard and left to teach physics at MIT for a brief stint before returning as the director of the Harvard College Observatory in 1877. It didn’t take long for him to grow frustrated with his male staff, who he felt was lacking in performance and innovation. Legend has it that he said his maid could do a better job – so he hired her (truly!) to oversee his new, all-female team of computers.
The majority of these women came with college…