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Williamina Fleming: Maid To Victorian Era Astronomer


Williamina Fleming started her career as a maid to Edward Charles Pickering. He recognized Fleming’s talent and gave her an opportunity to work as a “human computer” in the Harvard College Observatory. As a Victorian Era Astronomer, Williamina Fleming discovered 10 novae, 52 nebulae (including the Horsehead Nebula), 310 variable stars and the hot dense stars now known as white dwarfs. These were only a few of her achievements. She did all of this without a formal education in astronomy and while wearing a corset. Not bad for a Victorian Era Maid.

Williamina Fleming: From School Teacher To Maid

Williamina Paton Stevens was born in Dundee, Scotland, on May 15, 1857. She was one of nine children. A gifted student, she was teaching in Dundee public schools when she was 14. She married James Fleming in 1877. One year later, they immigrated to Boston to start a new life. At 23, she was pregnant with her first child in 1879. Her husband abandoned her before their son was born.

From Low Point To Opportunity

A single mother travels a difficult road in today’s world, but in 1879, that road was even rougher. Williamina Fleming was far from her native Scotland, with no one to help her. Desperate, she took a job as Edward Pickering’s maid. He was a professor of astronomy at Harvard and had been the director of the Harvard College Observatory since 1877. Working as Pickering’s maid must have felt like Fleming’s lowest point, but it became her greatest opportunity.

Pickering was notoriously disappointed by the poor quality of work being produced by his male employees at the Harvard College Observatory. It was said that he often claimed his “Scottish maid” could do a better job. As it turned out—she could–and she did.

The Early Days Of Night Sky Photography

John William Draper took the first daguerreotype of the moon in the winter of 1839. He also took the first photograph of the Great Nebula of Orion, on September 30, 1880. In August of 1872, he took the first stellar spectrum photograph of Vega. He also took the first wide-angle photograph of a comet’s tail and first spectrum photograph of its head in 1881. Both were of Tebbutt’s Comet.

When Draper died at the age of 45, his widow donated money to the Harvard College Observatory to continue his dream of photographing the entire night sky.

New technologies emerged rapidly in the Victorian Era, including improved telescopes and astrophotography. As a result, massive amounts of data were being collected faster than they could be catalogued and analyzed.

Williamina Fleming: A Rising Star

 The men whose work disappointed Pickering at the Harvard College Observatory were examining photographic plates. According to science writer Sue Nelson in Williamina Fleming–Star of Scotland for Finding Ada Lovelace:

“These plates, each about the size of an old 78 RPM record sleeve, contained images of stars taken from telescopes in Harvard and the southern hemisphere. They appeared as hundreds of fine grey or black spots on transparent glass. On the spectral plates, where starlight had first been split by a prism, the images resemble smudged pencil marks.

The computers examined the captured starlight with magnifying glasses to catalogue the stars’ brightness as well as calculating, or ‘computing’, their positions. In the case of spectral plates, information such as chemical composition, colour and temperature of the stars could be gleaned from each millimetre long spectrographic barcode of information.”

Enter Williamina Fleming: The Human Computer

In 1881, Pickering put his money where his mouth was and hired his maid to be a human “computer” at the Observatory. According to her early job description, Williamina Fleming performed clerical work and mathematical computations from astronomical plates  (hence “human computer”).

The Scottish Maid Becomes Miss Universe

She quickly surpassed Pickering’s wildest expectations. In short order, Fleming developed a new system of classifying stars according to their spectra. (For those of us who have forgotten more than we remember from astronomy classes, spectra are the unique patterns of lines caused by the refraction of a star’s light through a prism.) She classified stars into 17 different types.

In 1886, she was in charge of a project to classify thousands of stars by the spectrum of light they produced. Thanks to Fleming’s new system and the project she developed, she was able to catalogue more than 10,000 stars over the span of her nine years at the Observatory.

Her system came to be known as the “Pickering-Fleming System.” In 1890, she published her first findings in the Draper Catalogue of Stellar Spectra.

This was the same year that Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland returned from their race around the world.

Pickering Puts His Former Maid In Charge Of His “Harem”

Pickering eventually put Fleming in charge of editing all studies published by the Harvard College Observatory. She was also responsible for hiring dozens of young women to support her expanding department. The women came to be known as “Pickering’s Harem.” They catalogued over 200,000 stars.

Despite the degrading moniker and low pay, (from 25 to 50 cents per hour compared to men at twice that) many of these women made significant contributions to the field of astronomy. Among them were Annie Jump Cannon (recorded spectral classification of 300,00 stars), Cecelia Payne-Gaposchkin (explaned the composition of stars by relative abundances of hydrogen and helium), and Henrietta Swan Leavitt (developed a method of measuring the universe). We will explore their contributions in future posts.

All In A Day’s Work

Fleming became the first woman curator of the Observatory’s astronomical photographs in 1898. In Sue Nelson’s article, Fleming’s journal entry from 1900 reveals the range of her work in single day:

“Before lunch I found time to examine a few southern spectrum plates and marked a fourth type star and a gaseous nebula, both probably known. Later it the afternoon I noted a few more interesting objects, among these two fourth type stars, one gaseous nebula, and several bright line stars. Some of these may be new.” 

Williamina Fleming: A Few Of Her Shining Stars

1888: Fleming discovered the Horsehead Nebula on Harvard plate B2312, describing the bright nebula (later known as IC 434) as having “a semicircular indentation 5 minutes in diameter 30 minutes south of Zeta Orionis.”

1893: She made a landmark speech about women working in astronomy at the Chicago World’s Fair.

1898: The Harvard Corporation appointed Fleming to be the curator of astronomical photographs at the Harvard College Observatory, making her the first woman to hold this important position.

1906: The Royal Astronomical Society elected Fleming to its organization, the first time that prestigious body admitted an American woman.

Soon after, she was appointed honorary fellow in astronomy of Wellesley College.

1907: She published A Photographic Study of Variable Stars, an account of more than 200 variable stars she discovered.

1910: She reached the zenith of her career by discovering white dwarfs, which are very hot and dense stars that are white in color.

May 21, 1911: Fleming died of pneumonia in Boston, Massachusetts. She was 54 years old.

1911: The Astronomical Society of Mexico awarded her the Guadalupe Almendaro medal for her discovery of new stars.

1911: Her book, Spectra and Photographic Magnitudes of Stars in Standard Regions was published.

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4 Responses

  1. Thank you for explaining how they used the plates. For the first time, I feel like I understand. I am writing a theses about her and I will use this information in my project.

    1. I’m thrilled this helped. Let me know if you need more information. Our mission is to take small slices of bigger stories to entice people to research more. I always have much more information that I can include here. Keep me posted.

    1. I don’t know of any voice recordings. But volumes of her work as well as the work of many other women in the field have been opened to the public. In July 2017, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics’s Wolbach Library unveiled a display showcasing Fleming’s work. It includes her log book containing the Horsehead Nebula discovery. The library has dozens of volumes of Fleming’s work in its PHaEDRA collection. They have also reached out to the public to transcribe the many volumes. Tedious, yes. But what an opportunity to be part of history. Thanks so much for visiting. Let me know if you have any topics you want me to research.

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