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What Happened to the Women Computers?


I’ve spoken about the Dudley Observatory’s corps of women computers several times now.  Every time, someone has come up to me afterwards to mention that, back in their day, there still were departments of women working low level mathematical jobs.  Without giving away anyone’s age, I can say this runs up until the seventies.

This makes sense.  Although the job would change, the fundamental forces that creating the teams of women computers would stay the same: the job was tedious, time consuming and low status, making it suitable women’s work in a time of nearly unquestioned gender roles.  And women could be hired in greater numbers because they could be paid less, allowing large teams to be created.

And there’s no reason that it should be confined to the field of astronomy.  The factory model of doing mathematical equations seems to have been born in astronomy, but it was too useful to stay there.  

One field where number crunchers were in great demand was ballistics.  During WWI, the militaries of the world realized that the equations for cannon trajectories did not work for modern anti-aircraft guns and bombs dropped from zeppelins.  And so a proving ground for modern weapons was set up in Aberdeen, Maryland, and an office of experimental ballistics was set up in Washington under Major Forest Ray Moulton.

Army ballistics computers in Washington D.C. Taken from Grier's "When Computers Were Human"

Army ballistics computers in Washington D.C. Taken from Grier’s “When Computers Were Human”

In civilian life, Moulton had been a professor of astronomy at the University of Chicago.  This worked well, because the equations for the flight of artillery shells used some of the same calculus as plotting the path of a comet.  And when Moulton went looking for computers, he used the same process used in astronomy and began hiring both men and women. His chief computer was Elizabeth Webb Wilson, a graduate of George Washington University with a degree in mathematics.  

About the time that Dudley was completing its massive star catalog, Virginia Tucker was being hired by Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory to work in a new computer pool.  From 1935 until 1946, Tucker would help calculate drag from wind tunnel tests (another factor in ballistics) in what would eventually become America’s space program.  By the end of WWII, Tucker was overseeing some 400 women computers working throughout the laboratory.

The idea of women computers persisted, even as the equipment went from being pencil-and-paper to adding machines to punch cards.  Eventually the title of “computer” was transferred to the device and the human operator became a programmer.  But the same forces still applied, and so the first programmers were women.

Betty Jennings and Frances Bilas setting up ENIAC

Betty Jennings and Frances Bilas setting up ENIAC

For example, during WWII the Aberdeen Proving Grounds went to work again, this time with 80 women employed at the University of Pennsylvania to calculate ballistic trajectories. In 1945, six of these women were tapped to program a new device known as the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer or ENIAC.  ENIAC is regarded as the world’s first electronic digital computer, making these six women the first programmers in the modern sense.

So there is a direct line between the crews of female computers in observatories like Dudley and the early days of programming.  This story of women’s key role in the trenches of mathematics and programming is a story that is just now being told.  I would recommend David Alan Grier’s book When Computers Were Human for an overview, and the new documentary “The Computers: The Remarkable Story of the ENIAC Programmers” for that chapter of the story.  Of course, that’s not the final chapter by any means, but the rest will have to wait for another post.

Where Was Dudley? Part 2

In 1892, Dudley Observatory director Benjamin Boss took stock of the observatory’s position in the field of astronomy and found it wanting.  Dudley was had fallen behind the times, with no equipment to do spectroscope work and no telescope capable of doing photo-astronomy.

Worse, the position of the Dudley made fixing these problems difficult.  The first Dudley observatory was too close to four tracks of the New York Central railway, and the vibrations would throw off the careful calibration of any instrument the observatory used.

So Boss negotiated with the city for a land swap.  He gave up the site of the first observatory, with its hordes of goats, and traded it in for a site to on the grounds of the Albany Alms House.  The Alms House provided minimal housing and work for the indigent in Albany, and the rest of the grounds provided the farm land to sustain it, plus a cemetery.


(Thanks to Hoxsie for the image.)

Above you can see the Dudley Observatory, placed within the distinctive triangle of what are now South Lake, Myrtle and New Scotland Avenues.  The Alms House Hospital has been replaced by the Albany Medical College, and the Alms House itself has been replaced by the Albany College of Pharmacy and Albany Law School.

The second building is Dudley’s most famous, and it was one of the most iconic buildings in Albany at the time.  It showed up in postcards and maps of the era.



The second building is Dudley’s most famous, and it was one of the most iconic buildings in Albany at the time.  It showed up in postcards and maps of the era.  It was an imposing Romanesque structure of red brick, two stories tall with an observatory tower at the western end.  To the east was the residence of the director and temporary housing for visiting astronomers.  In the center were the rooms for the computers, the library and the rooms for the resident astronomers.

This time the patroness for the Observatory was Catherine Wolf Bruce, daughter of the industrialist George Bruce, who helped fund many great observatories around this time.  In the end she would donated $35,000 to the move and the construction of the new building.

Dudley burnedThe second Dudley Observatory burned down in May of 1970, as you can see in this photo from the Times Union Collection.  It was already empty.  Dudley had soldthe building to Albany Medical Center and moved out in the mid-1960s.  All the equipment, including the Pruyn Telescope, was packed away in a warehouse, so it was undamaged.  The gutted building was torn down and replaced by the Capital District Psychiatric Center.

The third home of Dudley Observatory was a simple office building at 100 Fuller Road in Albany, where scientists and engineers worked under Curtis Hemenway on a number of projects for NASA, most notably on micrometeorite research.  And the current home is, of course, here at miSci.  Hopefully we’ll be staying awhile.

The Great Patroness: Blandia Dudley

Blandina Bleeker Dudley bas relief by Erastus Dow Palmer

Blandina Bleeker Dudley bas relief by Erastus Dow Palmer

Writing about Blandina Dudley can be tricky.  I can wish it were different, but almost all of our sources focus on her relationship with the men around her.  Basically, any discussion of Mrs. Dudley fails the Bechdel test.

Mrs. Dudley was born Blandina Bleecker, part of the prosperous Dutch Bleecker family.  Her great-grandfather, Jan Jansen Bleecker (1641-1732), emigrated to American in 1658.  He started out as a blacksmith, but quickly became financially successful as a merchant, surveyor and land speculator.  Most famously he owned part of the Saratoga patent that included Bemis Heights.  He was politically successful as well, serving in various roles in Albany politics, including Mayor in 1700.

Jan Jansen’s grandson, Rutger Bleecker (1745-1831), continued the tradition of land speculation and surveying.  Somehow after the Revolution he ended up with a fair amount of property seized from Tories and became very wealthy from the sale.  Rutger’s wife, Catharina Elmendorf, gave birth to Blandina in 1783.

And now we run into problems.  We know nothing about Blandina’s life until she marries Charles Dudley, and then nothing until after his death.  Her connection to the Observatory begins in 1851, when she supported the original capital drive to build an observatory by donating $10,000, around $300,000 in today’s money.  When she did so, she cited her late husband’s interest in astronomy and mentioned a honeymoon stop at the Greenwich Observatory.

Things get complicated after that.  Once again, Blandina is surrounded by men who take up most of the spotlight.  The banker Thomas Olcott and one of her nephews convinced her to up the donation to $13,000.  That allowed Olcott to claim credit for this and later donations, as if Blandina’s actions were not really her own.

One way or another, Blandina remained one of the most reliable supporters of the observatory.  When the Lazzaroni struck their deal with James Armby to support the observatory in return for the purchase of some specialized equipment, it was Blandina who agreed to foot the bill for the instruments.  (The most expensive item, the heliometer, never got made, so it’s not clear she ended up paying.)

On the day of the inauguration, Blandina donated a further $50,000.  When all was tallied up, Blandina donated around $105,000, around $3 million in today’s money.   It was a remarkable donation during the years leading up to the civil war.

American observatories have a knack for selling immortality.  Real estate magnate James Lick would be forgotten, except perhaps as the man who introduced America to Ghirardelli chocolate, if he hadn’t paid for Lick Observatory.  Charles Tyson Yerkes would be grimly remembered as one of the most corrupt men in America had he not funded the Yerkes Observatory.

So it goes with Blandina Dudley.  Oddly, despite the fact that she named the Observatory after her late husband, we remember her and forget him.  Unfortunately, we remember that she donated the money, and that’s about it.  As always, I’m convinced there’s a trove of letters out there just waiting to shed some light on the rest of Blandina’s life.  If anyone has stumbled across something involving Blandina Bleecker Dudley, please drop us an email.

Restoration of the Pruyn




I’ve been telling everyone for years now that the Pruyn Brashear Telescope is in good shape.  It looks that way to me, but really,  I’m not the expert.  Thankfully, the telescope experts from Ray Museum Studios have now looked at it, and agreed that it’s in be in remarkably good shape for its age.  In fact, despite the fact that it’s  has gone through multiple warehouses, we only seem to be missing a single screw.



Guide Scope

Guide Scope



The Pruyn Brashear was purchased 120 years ago in order to get the Dudley Observatory up to date with late 19th century astronomy.  Most notably, it could be used for both visual and photographic astronomy.  Since photo-astronomy had become the driving force behind American astronomy after the civil war, this was crucial to keeping the Dudley Observatory relevant.








For our modern purposes, the Pruyn turns out to be an excellent telescope.  These old large refractors do a great job of cutting through light pollution.  And the interior of the telescope has numerous baffles which will cut down on ambient light.  If we can manage to construct an observatory here in Schenectady, the Pruyn is exactly the type of telescope we’d want.


Where Was Dudley?

I get this question a lot.  Actually, I usually get “Where IS Dudley?”, which requires me to explain that we don’t have an observatory at the moment, but we’re working on it.  But after that, someone has to explain where the two Dudley Observatory buildings were.

Fortunately, because the Observatory’s  latitude and longitude needed to be known to a precise degree, it’s not difficult to pinpoint where the buildings originally stood.  Both observatories were major Albany landmarks, so they’re usually not hard to find on old maps.

The first Observatory was located on land donated by Stephen Van Rensselaer IV, plus a few bits and pieces purchased in the 1850’s from the neighbors.  It’s to the north of Albany, about where Arbor Hill Elementary stands today.  Thanks to the historic map overlay put together by the Albany Bagel Company a few years ago, we can show exactly where:

Left: 1877 map  Right: 2016 Google map

Left: 1877 map
Right: 2016 Google map

The 1877 map also clearly shows the railroad line that forced Lewis Boss to abandon the original building.  When the observatory was opened, there wasn’t enough rail traffic for it to matter.  But by the 1870’s and 80’s, the steady stream of locomotives passing nearby caused enough vibration that it wrecked the calibration of the telescopes.  There was also the occasional puff of smoke that entered the observatory building.  All in all, it’s not surprising that the building burned down after it was abandoned.

The unofficial name for the rise on which the observatory sat was “Goat Hill,” because the the large number of feral goats that grazed on it.  One of the astronomers, Richard Hawley Tucker, wrote that, “There are hundreds of them in the neighborhood.”  In a letter to his mother he explained that they were, “taking advantage of the somewhat dilapidated condition of our fences and our own devotion to higher pursuits they come in crowds.  Prof [Lewis Boss] has a pistol with which he peppers them with fine shot, and usually he only needs to shout to make them scamper.”  Never let it be said that astronomers don’t know how to have fun.

More on the second observatory in another post.

The Lazzaroni

InaugurationGiven that the Inauguration of the Dudley Observatory took place right after the AAAS convention, it’s not surprising that many of the attendees were scientists.  However, some of the names of the list of attendees stand out: Alexander Dallas Bache, superintendent of the foremost scientific institution in America at the time, the US Costal Survey.  Benjamin Osgood Peirce, influential mathematician at Harvard.  Louis Agassiz, internationally famous naturalist.  Joseph Henry, pioneering electrical engineer and the first director of the Smithsonian.  Wolcott Gibbs, prominent chemist, soon to be at Harvard.

These men were some of the leading scientists in America at the time.  These names, along with other attendees like James Dwight Dana, James Hall, and of course Benjamin Gould, make up an impressive list of some of the best and brightest.  But all these names have another thing in common: they were part of a group known as the Lazzaroni.

On one hand, the Lazzaroni were just a group of like-minded colleagues in the field of science who agreed to get together during conventions to “eat an outrageously good dinner together”.  On the other hand, the Lazzaroni were a clique of influential scientists who all agreed that American science needed to become more professional along the lines of German science.

The name “Lazzaroni” sounds like a pasta, but was an Italian term for beggar, and it was probably an ironic reference to the poor state of science on early 19th century America.  As Benjamin Gould discovered when he returned from Europe, American science simply didn’t have the tools that European scientists had, nor did they have the resources to build the tools.  America needed scientific institutions if it was going to compete.

Joseph Henry, Albany Native, scientific pioneer and first director of the Smithsonian

Joseph Henry, Albany native, scientific pioneer and first director of the Smithsonian

The Lazzaroni, in between meals and drinking, agreed that building these institutions should be a priority, that the right sorts of people should be recruited to lead them.  Probably their greatest achievement was the creation of the National Academy of Sciences, founded by congress in 1863 to act as scientific advisers to the government.  They also backed a plan to create a university and an observatory in Albany, although not at the same time.  That takes a little explaining.

As I mention previously, it was James Armsby who originally suggested that an observatory be added on to plans for a world class university to be built in Albany.  While Agassiz supported the idea, the rest of the Lazzaroni were opposed to spending the money.  America had two world class refracting telescopes at that point; one in Harvard and one in Cincinnati that was inactive as Ormsby Mitchell toured the country raising money for staff.  Adding a third didn’t seem to advance American science much while taking away resources that could be better spent.

The plan for a university died when the state legislature would not fund it, but thanks to the efforts of Mtichell and Armsby the observatory found private funding from donors like Blandina Dudley.  At that point, the Lazzaroni started to come around.  They worked out a deal with the Armsby that would shape the purpose of the new observatory: if Dudley would purchase instruments for very careful measurements of stellar objects, like a heliometer and a transit circle (more on these later), then the Lazzoroni would throw their considerable weight behind the project.

In essence, the Lazzaroni wanted a specialized observatory that would complement the work that the Costal Survey was doing.  In return, Dudley got a three of the biggest names in American science on their board: Alexander Bache, Joseph Henry and Benjamin Peirce.  And one other, not quite so big name: Benjamin Gould.

It’s tempting (and fun) to make the Lazzaroni into some kind of shadowy conspiracy.  The “professionalization of science” was a profound shift in American thought, but it is maddeningly vague and hard to define exactly what happened.  The Lazzaroni give historians something tangible to point to: a group of elite white men in smoke-filled back rooms conspiring to take over American science and fill it with the “right sort” of people (See?  Fun.)

But it’s easy to make too much of them.  Here at Dudley, they failed repeatedly.  They could not get the state to support a new university, and they eventually lost their influence over the observatory.  Still, their deal with Armsby gave Dudley it’s trajectory as something more than a meeting place for local stargazers.  Dudley would become a world class observatory doing careful measurements of the heaves, but not until the Lazzaroni were kicked out of the place.

An Event of No Ordinary Interest

On August 28, 1856, at the end of a conference for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Albany, the visiting scientists met with many of New York’s political elite to witness the inauguration of the Dudley Observatory.  The event probably looked something like this:


This is a painting by Thompkinss Matteson (1813-1884), a successful painter out of New York City and Sherburne, NY.  It’s a fairly large piece – 56 x 72 inches – and it was completed the year after the inauguration.  Completed for whom is the question; there doesn’t seem to be any record of the painting until it was donated to the Albany Institute of History and Art in 1917.  No one knows who commissioned it.  That’s actually important, because the inauguration brought together several competing factions in Albany politics.  Depending on which faction commissioned it, there may be some faces missing.

Many of the faces are too vague to identify.  Most of those that can be seen have been identified.  Here Dudley is indebted  to Norman Rice, former director of the AIHA, Ian Bartky and Christine Bain of the NYS Library for painstakingly matching faces to portraits and identifying the people pictured here.  Their conclusions were published in a paper titles “An Event of No Ordinary Interest: The Inauguration of Albany’s Dudley Observatory,” in 1999.

Interestingly, several of the people pictured here were probably not in attendance.  Former President Millard Fillmore is pictured on the far left, but there is no record that he was attending. Matthew Fontaine Maury, Superintendent of the US Naval Observatory, is pictured in the middle, again despite the fact that there’s no record of his attendence.  This is interesting, because Maury was a rival of many members of the Scientific Committee, including Alexander Bache.  Was this a jab at the Scientific Committee?

A guide and a full list of the identified attendees after the jump:

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Charles Dudley vs. The Velociraptor

Oh, the joys of working at a hybrid museum …

Charles E. Dudley meets a velociraptor

Charles E. Dudley meets a velociraptor

Notice, no sweat on Charles Dudley.  After years of being at the top of New York State politics, he no longer fears anything.

The dinosaurs are here, and the exhibit will officially open on June 4th.  Charles Dudley will soon disappear behind some scenery until they’re gone.

A Scientific Puritan: Benjamin Apthorp Gould

Benjamin A. Gould

Benjamin A. Gould

Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel and James Armsby both deserve credit for inspiring and founding the Dudley Observatory.  But when Mitchell was tied up working as an engineer, Armsby had to look elsewhere to find a director who could organize the construction of the Observatory building and get the instruments working.  Through a developing partnership with the US Costal Survey, the premier scientific institution in America at the time, Armsby and the rest of the financial backers approached an employee of the Survey, Benjamin Apthorp Gould jr.

On paper, it’s hard to find a candidate as impressive as Benjamin Gould.  To start, his Boston pedigree was impeccable.  His grandfather was Captain Benjamin Gould, who served under Benedict Arnold at West Point and helped ferret out his treachery – albeit too late.  Gould’s father served as principal at the Boston Latin School, considered the top classical school in early America.  Due to health issues in his father, Gould was largely raised by his aunt Hannah, a respected local poet.

Gould was a prodigy, a fact that may explain some on his later eccentricities.  He was reading by the age of three, and composing Latin odes at five.  He dabbled in electrical engineering, building simple electrical machines and delivering lectures on the principles, by age ten.  Despite having to take a hiatus between his junior and senior years due to family financial problems, Gould still graduated from Harvard in 1844, at nineteen years old.

Gould’s interests had turned to science and mathematics, and particularly to astronomy. In the 1840s, Americans wanting higher education in science still had to travel to Europe.  So Gould sailed in 1845, packing letters of recommendation from sources like Harvard mathematician Benjamin Pierce and President John Quincy Adams.

Gould did a sort of academic grand tour, stopping at the greatest observatories of the day in Greenwich, Paris and Berlin.  Gould was probably most impressed by Berlin, which he described as a “great scientific emporium.”  He was impressed by the no-nonsense German style of science, and was particularly fond of the combative attitudes of the great German thinkers.  He later admitted that he preferred to be where “scientific men fight like cats and dogs,” an attitude that would come back to haunt him.

One of Gould’s last stops was the University of Göttingen, where he studied under no less an authority that Carl Friedrich Gauss, perhaps the greatest mathematician of the age.   Under Gauss, Gould would complete his doctorate in 1848, at the ripe old age of twenty three.  He was the first American to receive a Ph.D. in Astronomy.

Gould returned to America at the end of 1848.  Having spent three years in the greatest universities of Europe, he was taken aback at how far behind American astronomers were.  America still lacked the institutions of science; not only the observatories but also the journals, libraries and great universities.

Another scientist may have just given American the laugh and headed back to Europe, where scientific institutions were more developed, and scientific jobs were easier to find.  Instead, true to his Puritanical roots, Gould set out to reform American science.  Supporting himself by teaching languages and mathematics, Gould relentlessly published articles on astronomy .  Finally in 1849, Gould began publishing his own astronomical journal, imaginatively named the Astronomical Journal.

This was the first professional quality astronomical journal in America.  O.M. Mitchell was already publishing the Sidereal Messenger, but true to Mitchel’s nature this was aimed at amateur astronomers.  Gould went the other direction; only original research from professional astronomers was published.  In a time period where slow communications made it difficult for astronomers to stay abreast of what their colleagues were doing, Gould’s journal became essential.

Gould’s commitment to reforming American science can be seen in his reaction to a job offer in 1851.  His mentor, Carl Friedrich Gauss, offered him a position in Göttingen as a full professor and the director of the observatory.  Had he accepted, Gould would likely have become a famous name in the history of astronomy.  But he refused, because he was committed to staying the course and remaking American science.

This drive was remarkable, but Gould was not alone.  He had some impressive allies looking to advance American science.  But more on them later.

No Longer in the Collection: Scheutz Difference Engine

Scheutz Difference Engine

Scheutz Difference Engine

Of all the instruments that Dudley has used throughout its century and a half of operation, the one that most stands out is the Scheutz Difference Engine.  Although it is now housed in the Smithsonian, the Scheutz served Dudley well for the first half of its life, and it allowed a small observatory with limited staff to operate at a much higher level.

The Scheutz Difference Engine was created by the father and son team of George and Edvard Scheutz, two Swedish publisher and inventors inspired by the notes of Charles Babbage.  Babbage himself had been unable to complete his design, supposedly because he could not get parts made to the necessary precision.

Babbage may have been ahead of his time, but not by much.  Babbage sketched out his designs in the 1820s, and George and Edvard were able to create a very basic model by the late 1830s.  Thanks to a grant by the Swedish government, the father and son were able to design and create a full scale difference engine by 1853.

The Scheutz family put the working difference engine on display during the Paris “Exposition Universelle” in 1855.  One of the five million visitors was Benjamin Gould, traveling through Europe in order to acquire a telescope for the new Dudley observatory.  A friend of Charles Babbage, Gould was impressed by the engine and bought the first available model.

The engine was crank operated.  By turning the handle – seen on the left side of the image above- a sequence of wheels and gears would turn throughout the machine.  The engine had four banks of number wheels with fifteen wheels each.  As the wheels turned, the settings on these wheels were run through what amounted to an adding process.  The results were displayed on one set of the number wheels and also printed out on a slip of paper.

Scheutz Engine Print-outs

Scheutz Engine Print-outs

That last bit was a leap forward.  Charles Babbage himself had been unable to get a machine to print, but the Scheutz family managed a working solution.  Here at Dudley, astronomers kept notebooks of their calculations.  When working with the the Schuetz engine, the astronomers just pasted the print-outs into their notebooks and marked them up as part of their calculations.  While we no longer have the engine, we still have many of these notebooks, which are now probably the oldest computer print-outs surviving.

While the Scheutz Difference Engine was an incredible achievements, it had its issues.  While it was a great proof of concept, it simply wasn’t reliable enough for constant use.  The usefulness of the engine was directly proportional to the technical ability of the person who had to fix it: Benjamin Gould could keep it operating, as could his successor George Washington Hough, but Lewis and Benjamin Boss could not get it working.  The machine was sold to Dorr E. Felt, inventor of the comptometer, in 1924.  Felt and some of his fellow inventors were able to keep the engine working and put it on display.  In 1963, Felt’s collection of early computers was donated to the Smithsonian.  The Scheutz Difference Engine is now part of the National Collection and is sometimes on display at the National Museum of History.