Physicists in Petticoats

To him, I was only a “computer.”

That’s what they called us, the researchers who wore petticoats instead of trousers. The educated women who processed data within Harvard’s isolated offices at the turn of the century. Who kept our heads down, patiently waiting. Dedicating ourselves to science, stubbornly persevering.

I’m thrilled to announce the publication of my historical fiction short story, Physicists in Petticoats, as part of the anthology Flicker.


Determined to prove her merit, physics assistant Miss Barnett perseveres through resentment from the professor she works for at Harvard in 1906. But constant friction wears at the hardest of surfaces. When Miss Barnett discovers a error in Professor Lawrence’s calculus, she contemplates staying silent. After all, her input is undesired. With her conflicted conscience rattling like the filaments in the light bulbs dangling overhead, her honor as a physicist is pitted against the sweet allure of retaliation. Only she would ever know.

As a female in a STEM field, this piece proved personal and perhaps a bit therapeutic. The piece also references several real-life figures:

Historical Reference

Before modern computing devices, a “computer” was someone who performed mathematical calculations, often a female assistant in the mid-twentieth century. This concept is known for being portrayed in the film Hidden Figures. But long before Katherine Goble roamed the halls of Langley Research Center, women “computers” were making discoveries in astronomy at Harvard.

Pickering Harem
Pickering’s Harem. Photo Credit: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Edward Charles Pickering was was the director of the Harvard College Observatory from 1877 to 1918. He expanded astrophotography shortly after new “plate” imagery technology became readily available. However, the technique produced a significant number of images that needed to be analyzed. After becoming frustrated with the performance of his male “computers,” Pickering is said to have loudly proclaimed, “My Scottish maid could do better!”

Since analyzing the plates was considered boring and unspecialized work, Pickering put his theory to the test and hired his maid, Williamina Fleming, as a computer in 1881. He taught her how to analyze stellar spectra and she became the first of the all-woman team Pickering would assemble. Fleming later discovered the Horsehead Nebula in 1888.

Annie Cannon
Annie Cannon. Photo Credit: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

“Pickering’s Harem,” as the women came to be called, worked six days a week and were paid between 25 and 50 cents an hour. One of these women, Annie Cannon (who is referenced in Physicists and Petticoats), first posed a system of star classification based upon temperature and spectral type. Her classification, published in 1901, is still used today. During her career, Cannon manually classified more stars than anyone else (around 350,000), and it’s said she could classify three stars a minute.

Nettie Stevens. Photo Credit: Britannica.

Another female pioneering scientist referenced in Physicists and Petticoats, is Nettie Stevens.

In the 19th century the mechanism for gender determination was unknown. Beliefs included that gender was determined by the body temperature of the father or perhaps nutrition of the mother. However in 1905, Stevens postulated that gender was determined by chromosomes (though that specific name would come later) after noting mealworm sperm had either a small version of the 20th chromosome or a large version. However, Stevens did not receive credit for her work. E.B. Wilson, her colleague and also a renowned biologist, is still commonly cited for this discovery.

What to learn more?

Here are two of the better articles I came across during research:

Howell, Elizabeth. Harvard’s ‘Computers’: The Women Who Measured the Stars. November 9, 2016.

Resnick, Brian. Nettie Stevens discovered XY sex chromosomes. She didn’t get credit because she had two X’s. July 7, 2017.

Thoughts for discussion/notes of interest from the Author:

  1. The reader never learns the first name of the main character, Miss Barnett. This is an homage to all the women whose research was credited to others and to the
    nameless computers who worked not for acclaim, but simply for the love of science.
  2. Professor “Lawrence” was named after the University in my hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin.
  3. The piece is dedicated to Anna L. Fisher, who was the first mother to fly in space. Fisher was selected for astronaut training in 1978 as part of the first candidate class to include women. I had the honor of working Orion cockpit display design with Anna before she retired from the astronaut corp. I remember walking into the first design meeting and seeing her at the table and having a starstruck moment. I never told her how much it meant to me to have the opportunity to work with her, it is the introvert in me. I loved hearing her stories of how she brought her baby to astronaut training classes, but mostly I treated her like any other co-worker. It is what so many before us fought to achieve.I have experienced a lot of prejudice throughout my career but I know it’s nothing compared to what Anna, Nettie, Williamina, and countless others experienced before me. I am so grateful to those who paved the path for my own career.

Looking into the light, I remembered I am more than a transcriber, more than a computer.

I am a physicist.

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