Female Computers at the ROE

Joseph Luke
Tuesday 18 June 2019

On June 1st 1909, two women began work at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh. While not the first women to work at an observatory in the UK, they would be the first employed in any permanent capacity at the ROE, working on a project that would span the majority of the 20th century and at least 18 different women.

The two sisters, Sarah and Isabella Falconer, were employed at the direction of the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Frank Dyson. The work they were engaged upon was part of a global effort to map the heavens, the Carte du Ciel project. Initially employed as measurers, the women would go on to compute plate constants, perform reductions and conversions, and other work such as library and general assistance. They would be joined by others – some women with degrees, some without, some working for only a few months, others for close to a decade. Their work was menial, straightforward, and at times practically algorithmic – so where is the academic interest in their endeavours?

Edinburgh Measurers c. 1911 (Royal Observatory, Edinburgh)

I chose to research these women as the focus of my Laidlaw project because, in the history of mathematics and astronomy, women take a backseat. These fields were dominated by men for thousands of years, and the direction and culture of their study guided by patriarchal society throughout. When we do learn about women in mathematics, we tend to focus only on the pioneers, the revolutionaries, the extraordinary. Of course, the idea that only exceptional women were involved in mathematics up to the 20th century is a blatant falsehood. Working women have used mathematics just as much as working men; however, there has indeed been a distinction in that far fewer women have worked in explicitly mathematical professions. Hence, the need to shine a light on those that have, such as the ‘female computers’ of the ROE.

Researching these women is challenging, or so I have found. In my first week, I spent a significant amount of time simply reading anything that I could find that I considered relevant. There is a good degree of literature in this area broadly, but it focuses, as I said, on the exceptional. While I found it fascinating to learn about the interactions of well-educated middle-class women with the study of mathematics at the University of Cambridge in the late 19th century, the path followed by these women to the first experiment with female computers at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, bears little resemblance to that of the female computers at the ROE.

Reading widely around the topic does provide a good historical context for the women at the ROE, however. When the first attempt to employ women at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, failed, it did so largely because not enough women of sufficient education and of the ‘right class’ could be found willing to work at such low pay. A major concern for these women was quite simply the safety of walking to and from the observatory late at night. When the Astronomer Royal for Scotland employed the female computers at the ROE, these issues were well known to him, and accounted for. The women worked ‘in the forenoons only’, were supported by a grant from the ‘Committee which allots the Government Grant for Scientific Investigations’ which allowed for pay rates to rise minimally, and were of a lower level of education than those at the Greenwich Observatory. These factors, alongside the changing societal norms of the time, surely led to the success in Edinburgh where there had been failure in Greenwich.

A Letter from R Copeland, 1910

The details of the women’s work, some of which I have given above, came not from wider reading, but from an in-depth study of the archives at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh. I spent my second week commuting to and from Edinburgh, and although the buses and trains were a bit of a nightmare, it was worth it for the research achieved. Lots of simple information, such as names and dates and pay, was well recorded. This allowed me to build up a picture of who these women were, what they did, and how they did it. However, it did not provide me with everything I wished to know. Many decades of letters to and from the Astronomer Royal for Scotland and his staff are well-preserved, but the women who worked alongside him are scarcely mentioned. Following a common theme in the history of scientific women, they are noticed more for their absence than not. Even when referring explicitly to their work, they are often mentioned only in passing, with a ‘we’ in the place of an ‘I’. This is the challenge I now face.

The future of my research is still to be determined, but I believe that I will need to broaden the scope of this project if it is going to last 10 weeks. Already, I am finished with the archives, when I hoped they would last for 2 weeks. The women, conspicuous in their lack of records, are hard to research. I plan to continue studying their path into the ROE, and the wider context of their work, for the next while. One area of research will be feminist theory, another perhaps epistemic injustice. Next summer, it might be necessary to research women at a sister observatory, such as those in Perth, W. Australia, where women were similarly employed. Another direction could be to contrast the education and work of these ‘working women’ with their more elite counterparts from the south. This will be decided in the coming days, but for now, it is something to consider further.


The view from the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh

I would like to thank a number of people for their assistance in this project. First, thanks to Lord Laidlaw and the Laidlaw team for their generous support; this would be impossible without them. Second, thanks to my advisor, Dr Isobel Falconer, for her indubitable assistance in not only my research, but in providing me with a subject matter to study at all. And finally, thanks to Ms Karen Moran, the archivist at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, and Ms Fiona Hooper, the archivist at George Watson’s College, for allowing me access to their records.

The first image used above is from the photo lab at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh. The other two are my own photography.

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