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Classroom Connections: Silent Sky

Thanks for joining us for Asolo Rep's production of Silent Sky! 

The page below contains information about the history of astronomy in the United States, the women who made , and some other cool things about putting together a sw.

For a first glance at the science and people behind the production you can download our Science of Light pages below!

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The Harvard Observatory:

In 1881, the director of the Harvard Observatory, Edwards Charles Pickering, had a huge amount of data coming in and not enough staff with the ability to analyze it and log it. He also doubted the competency of his staff and as a consequence he fired his assistant and replaced him with his maid: Williamina Fleming. 

Fleming proved herself so valuable that a new era began at the Harvard Observatory: more than 80 women during Pickering’s tenure were hired as computers to catalog data.    

The Harvard Observatory at-a-glance: 

  • The Computing Room: A team of women worked to process astronomical data. They were known as the Harvard computers, though they were also referred to as “Pickering’s Harem.”  

  • The Hiring Process: Demand for computer positions at the Harvard Observatory ran so high that many young women with college degrees offered to work for free. 


Twelve women, including myself, are engaged in the care of the photographs; identification, examination and measurement of them; reduction of these measurements, and preparation of results for the printer.

Williamina Fleming

Suzanne Grodner, Lise Bruneau, Kendra Jo Brook and Christian Douglass in Asolo Rep's production of Silent Sky. Photo by Cliff Roles..jpg

The "Computers" of the Harvard Observatory.

Williamina Fleming

  • Early Life: Born in Dundee, Scotland in 1857, Williamina Fleming immigrated to the United States at age 21.  

  • Harvard Observatory: In 1879, she was hired by Dr. Pickering to be his second maid. In 1881, after recognizing her intelligence, he offered Fleming a job at the Harvard College Observatory (HC). 

  • Scientific Contributions: Among her most significant contributions to astronomy was her preparation of the Henry Draper Catalogue of Stellar Spectra, the first extensive piece of research by an American female astronomer (though Pickering received most of the credit as director of the project). The Draper Catalogue (and Extension) was a monumental work of stellar classification, begun under Fleming in the 1880s and continued through 1940 by Annie Cannon. Today, it is still in regular use.  

Annie Jump Cannon

  • Early Life: Annie Cannon was born in Dover, Delaware in 1863. From a young age, Cannon took an interest in astronomy. She pursued physics and astronomy at Wellesley College.  

  • Harvard Observatory: Cannon worked as an assistant physics teacher and became a student of astronomy and spectroscopy at Radcliffe College before being employed at the Harvard Observatory as a computer.  

  • Scientific Contributions: Annie Cannon was the first woman awarded an honorary Doctor of Science by Oxford in 1925. Cannon’s iconic work in astronomy was her star classification system. Each star was given a spectral class: O, B, A, F, G, K, or M, with the O type being the hottest and the M type being the coolest. In 1910, the International Solar Union would endorse and adopt this method of categorization, making it the standard.  

Henrietta Swan Leavitt

  • Early Life: Born in 1868 in Massachusetts, Henrietta Leavitt was the oldest of seven siblings. She studied at Oberlin College and Radcliffe College. Leavitt discovered astronomy in 1892 as a senior in college. After she graduated, Leavitt became sick with an illness and began experiencing hearing loss that continued throughout her life.

  • Harvard Observatory: Leavitt joined Harvard College Observatory in 1895 as an unpaid volunteer. She then left for some travels and family matters but would return as a paid computer a few years later.

  • Discoveries: During her career, Leavitt discovered more than 2,400 variable stars, about half of the known total in her day. These stars change from bright to dim and back fairly regularly. Leavitt's work with variable stars led to her most important contribution to the field: the cepheid variable period-luminosity relationship. 

Kendra Jo Brook in Asolo Rep's production of Silent Sky. Photo by Cliff Roles. (1).jpgAbout Henrietta's work:

Henrietta Leavitt is best known for her contribution to astronomical physics through her work with cepheids. But... 

What is a cepheid?

Ce· phe· id ˈse-f(ē-)id ˈsē- : any of a class of variable stars whose very regular light variations are related directly to their intrinsic luminosities and whose apparent luminosities are used to estimate distances in astronomy. 

What is the cepheid variable period-luminosity relationship?

Classical Cepheids exhibit a relation between period and luminosity in the sense that the longer the period of the star, the greater its brightness; this period-luminosity relationship has been used to establish the distance of remote stellar systems. 

Why is this important?

Henrietta's work gave us the tools to map out the stars in the universe. By discovering the correlation between Period and Luminosity, her work allowed scienctists to view sky as a three-dimensional map allowing astronomers to solve the unknown equation: Distance. 

Christian Douglass, Suzanne Grodner, Lise Bruneau, Zoya Martin and Kendra Jo Brook in Asolo Rep's production of Silent Sky. Photo by Cliff Roles. (1).jpgMapping the Sky:

  • Star Plates: The Harvard computers were examining two types of plates: photographic plates and spectrographic plates. The majority are photographic: opaque glass sheets scattered with dark specks of stars. 
  • Star Name: The naming system being used in the script is the Bayer System. Stars are named based on their constellations. Within a constellation, stars are ordered from apparent brightness to apparent dimness using the Greek Alphabet. For instance, the brightest star in Centaurus would be Alpha Centauri, the second brightest would be Beta Centauri, and so on. 

How long does it take to map a plate?

Each woman received a new stack of plates at the start of every day. So it likely took them 1-2 hours per plate.  

Did the computers have telescopes?

The women had access to 5 and 6 inch (in diameter) telescopes that they would use after hours for their research. 


Lise Bruneau and Suzanne Grodner in Asolo Rep's production of Silent Sky. Photo by Cliff Roles. (1).jpgThe Women's Suffrage Movement: 

  • The period between 1890 and 1920 is sometimes referred to as the “Women’s Era,” for the movement toward political and social opportunities for women, such as the right to own property and make contracts and wills.  

  • In this period, women and women's organizations worked for broad-based economic and political equality, social reforms, and increased educational and employment opportunities. 

  • Gradually more work was available to women, as secretaries and telephone operators, and, as we see in Silent Sky, occasionally more specialized jobs in scientific fields.  

Activity: What would you say?

In the summer of 1893, Williamina Fleming made a speech at the Congress of Astronomy and Astro-Physics, World’s Fair, in Chicago IL and said:  

“While we cannot maintain that in everything woman is man’s equal, yet in many things her patience, perseverance and method make her his superior. Therefore, let us hope that in astronomy, which now affords a large field for woman’s work and skill, she may, as has been the case in several other sciences, at least prove herself his equal.”

Using Williamina’s speech as inspiration, imagine you are Henrietta and the women in the Harvard Observatory, and you’ve been invited to give a speech that reflects on why women should have the same opportunities and recognition as men. What would you say?  

About the Production:

A Closer Look: Backstage for Silent Sky 

Meet Asolo Rep's Master Carpenter, Jeff Ellis, and get a closer look on how the Production Department makes the magic happen so that audiences can enjoy Silent Sky and the rest of the shows in our Repertory season. 


Production Program

Silent Sky Program

Show program for Silent Sky at Asolo Rep, Jan 19-March 5.

Content Guide and Educational Standards