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Edward Charles Pickering: 19th Century Astronomer

Updated on November 30, 2022
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My writing interests are general, with expertise in science, history, biographies, and how-to topics. I have written over 70 books.

Edward Pickering
Edward Pickering | Source

Early Years and College

Edward Pickering came from a prominent New England family. His first American ancestor, John Pickering, settled in Salem, Massachusetts in 1636. Edward's great grandfather, Timothy Pickering served in the presidential cabinet for both George Washington and John Adams.

Edward was the first-born son of Edward Pickering and Charlotte Hammond. He was born on July 19th, 1846, in Boston. Pickering had one sibling, a younger brother, William Henry Pickering. He began his education at a prominent private school, then went on to the Boston Latin School. The family's motto, which had been with them since the family lived in England, simply stated Nil desperandum, "don't despair." It was hard for Edward to keep this in mind during the five years he spent at Boston Latin School (BLS), where he had to memorize long passages from works such as Anabasis.

During Pickering's time at the BLS, he used his free time to read mathematical works. He had developed a distaste for classical literature but found the world of mathematics very much to his liking. He embraced works such as Legetidre's Elements of Geometry and Trigonometry by Charles Davies. This love for mathematics persuaded Pickering to attend the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard, now known as the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Science, even though his headmaster at the BLS said the "only requisite would be to know enough to come in when it rained."

A big factor in Pickering's ultimate decision to attend the school came from the advice of Charles William Eliot, Lawrence Science schools assistant professor of mathematics and chemistry. In the fall of 1862 he enrolled and though the studies were hard, he enjoyed them immensely. The following spring he was offered an assistant teaching position within the department, but opted instead to enter the engineering department.

Pickering excelled during his studies at Harvard and graduated cum laude with his BS in mathematics at age 19. He finally took the position of assistant instructor, which he maintained for two years. In 1867, Pickering got a job offer teaching physics at the newly founded Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, better known today as MIT.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The ways in which physics was taught was revolutionized by Pickering. He established a laboratory at MIT, the first of its kind, which required students to use genuine lab equipment to make measurements. He personally devised the experiments used, which outlined the properties of gases, solids, and operation of the equipment. He also encouraged his students to design their own experiments and conduct original research. These guidelines were put into a book and published as the Elements of Physical Manipulation, the first manual of laboratory physics.

Harvard College Observatory cira 1899
Harvard College Observatory cira 1899 | Source


Pickering was a professor at MIT for nine years. Though he liked the work, in 1876, Pickering got the opportunity to be a professor of astronomy at Harvard and took the job. The following year, at the age of 31, Pickering took over as director of the Harvard College Observatory (HCO). This position gave him the opportunity to use his keen intellect to explore stars and the nature of the universe.

The appointment of a physicists to run the HCO met with considerable criticism. President Eliot had worked with Pickering at MIT and known him when he was an undergrad at Lawrence but, more importantly, Eliot seemed to know that the direction of astronomy was about to be altered. Whatever the case, President Eliot had complete faith in Pickering's abilities.

The primary focus of astronomers up until this time was the position and motion of stars, but Pickering knew that the greatest opportunities for the future of the field lay within astrophysics. He did not completely abandoned the astronomy that had been studied for centuries, but the astrophysical work he did would ultimately lend greater importance to the field as it is thought of today. Pickering is known for pioneering three main areas: Stellar photography (photographing stars), stellar spectroscopy (categorizing stars), and visual photometry (estimations of brightness by comparison with other stars).

Pickering Hires Women Astronomers

Pickering did something that was unprecedented at the time, he hired many women to assist him in data computations at the observatory. Among them were Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, and Antonia Maury. They were nicknamed "Pickering's harem" or "Pickering's ladies" but they proved to be a vital part of the observatory.

The First woman Pickering hired was Williamina Fleming, a maid for in his home. Pickering was irritated by the shoddy work his male assistants were doing. The story goes that he said his maid could do a better job than they could, and as it turns out, he was right. Fleming was efficient and this impressed Pickering. When the observatory got awarded the Henry Draper fund, Pickering was able to hire more women.

He soon realized that many more women, some with degrees equal to men's, could be hired as they made so little in comparison to the men with the same education. This became more important as the plethora of information being brought in was surpassing those who could analyze it. With his primarily female staff, Pickering was able to publish the first Henry Draper Catalog, in 1890. This first edition had over 10,000 spectrum star classifications.

Photometry at Harvard College Observatory

While at the HCO, Pickering invented the meridian photometer. The purpose of this tool was to allow stars at different altitudes, but near the celestial meridian to be focused in on simultaneously which enables them to have their brightness compared. In laymen's terms, it made it possible for the brightness of one star to be compared to Polaris at the same time. This device works by using mirrors and calcite prisms to bring the two different stars into one visual path. With the use of a meridian photometer, Pickering was able to publish the first photometric catalogue in 1884, which was aptly named Harvard Photometry.

Establishes Observatory in Peru

Towards the end of the 1800's, when the Arequipa Observatory was established in Peru by Pickering, the measurements of the southern stars were able to be added to the catalogue of variable stars used at HCO. Under the direction of Pickering, those at Harvard College Observatory created a scale of photographic magnitudes, a classification system of variable stars, and the stellar spectroscopy system that was universally adopted around the world for many years.

One of the hopes Pickering had during his lifetime was to organize an institution which would distribute funds to astronomers across the globe. He didn't make it much beyond the creation of pamphlets. There was a brief period of time when he was allowed to distribute $500 cash prizes to astronomers in the US and Europe, thanks to a donation from Catherine Wolf Bruce.

His hopes were raised again when the Carnegie Institution was established in 1902. The institution made in clear though that they had no desire to back individual astronomers. When he approached the Rockefeller Foundation for funds in 1906, he once again was rejected.

The Harvard Computer

Personal Life

Unlike many of the women who worked as astronomers for him, Pickering was married. When he was 28, he met Lizzie Wadsworth Sparks, who he married in 1874. Lizzie Sparks was the daughter of the noted historian and former Harvard President, Jared Sparks. When Pickering got his position at the HCO, the couple moved to Observatory Hill so Pickering could be close to his observatory. They were happily married for 32 years, until her death in 1906. He never remarried and had no children.

The Harvard University Archives still houses all of Pickering's old notes and correspondences. Many of his notes exist on a culmination of notebooks, more notebooks, and scrapbooks. His entire collection consumes 68 linear feet. It is largely due to Pickering that Harvard College Observatory became, and has remained, a well-respected observatory throughout the world.

Edward C. Pickering died in Cambridge, Massachusetts on February 3rd, 1919 of undetermined but most likely natural causes. He ran the Harvard Observatory for 42 out of the 80 years it had been in operation and during the course of his career he and his staff visually studied 45,000 stars. He took 1.4 million photometric measurements personally. He was content to spend his life as a collector of astronomical facts, not a speculator, not a theorizer, but a researcher.

I don't know if God is a mathematician, but mathematics is the loom on which God weaves the universe.

— Edward C. Pickering

Honors and Legacy

Pickering had honorary doctorates from six American universities and two in Europe. Pickering was knighted by the Prussian Ordre Pour Je Merite, received the Henry Draper Gold Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Bruce Gold Medal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and twice he received the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society.

During the time of his life, there was virtually no scientist in the field of astronomy who did not benefit from Pickering's work. When he passed away, others in his field started saying "the dean of American science is gone." And though it was never intended, his employment of women beyond the fields of secretaries became one step in the advancement of women that has occurred in the modern age.


  • Yount, Lisa. Edward Pickering and His Women "Computers": Analyzing the Stars (Trailblazers in Science and Technology). Chelsea House Pub. 2012.
  • West, Doug. Harlow Shapley: Biography of an Astronomer: The Man Who Measured the Universe. C&D Publications. 2015.
  • The Astronomy Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained. New York: DK Penguin Random House, 2017.

© 2014 Doug West


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