Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Women at the Royal Observatory

There was a brief experiment of employing women at the Observatory between about 1891 and 1895. They were employed as 'supernumary' computers, in other words in non-permanent roles. These positions had traditionally been take up by boys coming straight from the local schools. Christie had been concerned about the quality of the candidates he received in a time when astronomy and the calculations it involved were increasingly complex, and was occupied with trying to get the Admiralty to agree to the expansion of the permanent workforce and promotion of the best computers (see notes page on Christie's staffing scheme). While the Admiralty dithered, the idea of hiring women was a useful stop-gap as they could be paid at a very low rate despite having excellent qualifications. Women with ambitions in the world of astronomy did jump at the chance, although some were unimpressed by the wages. Like Christie's other computers, these women were trained to make observations with the Observatory's important instruments.

It is not clear why this experiment was not continued beyond the mid-1890s. Perhaps no more women put themselves forward, or perhaps Christie felt that his staffing reforms meant that he now had enough competent male computers. It was not until after the Second World War that women began to be employed on a more regular basis.

B329/Q Mary Ellen French (worked as Computer, Temporary Clerk and Clerical Assistant at the ROG between 1930 and 1943) © NMM

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