Leavitt, Henrietta Swan

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Before the emergence of the electronic version, the term "computer" referred to a person who carried out tedious, time-consuming measurements and calculations. Late in the 19th century, Edward Charles Pickering, director of the Harvard College Observatory, appointed a team of computers to measure the characteristics of stars in the observatory's 500,000 photographic plates. The team consisted entirely of women—mainly students or graduates of nearby Radcliffe College—and became known as "Pickering's Harem." Pickering was concerned about getting the most work done for the minimum expense. "A great observatory," he wrote, "should be as carefully organized and administered as a railroad." He noted that "a great savings may be effectuated by employing unskilled, and therefore inexpensive, labor, of course under careful supervision." However, the women who did these jobs turned out to have real talent for astronomy and published significant papers that eventually led to significant advances in many areas of astronomy, especially in understanding the physical nature of stars. The work of Henrietta Swan Leavitt on variable stars led to a revolution in understanding the scale of the universe. (Unit: 11)