PortCities London

Women computers

Airy was succeeded by William Henry Mahoney Christie and under Christie women were employed by the Observatory for the first time.  In fact there is record of the Observatory employing at least one woman in the 18th century as a home worker on the Nautical Almanac (an annual publication produced by the Observatory since 1766 listing the observations made by the Observatory in a form that would be useful to navigators), but it was not until 1891 that the first women were employed to work at the Observatory as part of the full time staff.

Miss Bonnett and Mrs Georgina Myra Richards, employees of the Royal Observatory.

Miss Bonnett and Mrs Georgina Myra Richards, employees of the Royal Observatory.

Mary Ellen Higby (née French), an employee of the Royal Observatory (1930-1943).

Mary Ellen Higby (née French), an employee of the Royal Observatory (1930-1943).

Miss Bonnett and Georgina Myra Richards (née Cumberledge) began work at the Observatory in 1929 and 1930 respectively. As ‘lady computers’, they had to make routine calculations on the observations made by the astronomers. Miss Bonnett left in 1932 but Georgina Cumberledge stayed on, though she transferred to clerical work, the most common form of employment for women at the Observatory after 1936. She married in 1940 and retired from the Observatory. As computers they both worked in the Astrographic Department and are photographed here in the South Building of the Observatory.

Mary Ellen French began work at the Observatory in 1930 as a computer, alongside four other ‘lady computers’ as they were termed. As a computer she had to make routine calculations on the observations made by the astronomers. After several years at the Observatory, she transferred to clerical work. She married in 1939 but remained at the Observatory until 1943. In her time at the Observatory she worked under two Astronomers Royal, Frank Dyson and Harold Spencer Jones. She is photographed here using a solar micrometer to measure the exact position of sunspots on a glass plate of the Sun produced by the astronomers.
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