Kilo Girl Hours at the Harvard Observatory


Friday, November 30, 2018, 3:30pm to 4:30pm


Byerly Hall, 8 Garden St, Cambridge, MA 02138

Kilo Girls cropped imageBetween 1885 and 1927, the Harvard College Observatory employed 80 women “computers” to analyze hundreds of thousands of astronomical photographs.  The photographs were made on glass plates by huge, camera-like telescopes in Peru and Massachusetts.   A single plate might have more than 100,000 stars.  The female computers determined the varying brightness of these stars and catalogued them by means of their spectra.  As they worked with “fly spankers” and loupes, they made painstaking notes in India ink on the non-emulsion side of the photographic plate, on its paper sleeve, and in pencil in a logbook.  These annotations leave a trail of how the work was done, by whom, and when—a trail that is presently being erased. The observatory hired women because it could not afford men.  Women were willing to work for 25¢ an hour.  Qualified Radcliffe students started as unpaid interns.  Two were Henrietta Swan Leavitt and Annie Jump Cannon, whose work in the Plate Stacks altered the course of astrophysics.  Come see a photographic plate, log book, and “fly spanker” used by them in this gallery talk and discuss the role of women in astronomy and why evidence of their labor is being washed away. Led by Sara Schechner, David P. Wheatland Curator of the Harvard Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments.

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(Light refreshments to follow.)