Three Awesome STEM Women in History

Updated on March 8, 2018
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I hold a Masters in Public History, and specialize in telling the hidden stories of women and objects from ancient times to today.

Women have been major players in STEM fields since the dawn of time. Yet many of their stories remain silent in textbooks and historical accounts. It's time to take back women's place in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Here are three awesome women whose contributions have profoundly changed their fields and our lives.

Census Taker of the Sky

Annie at her desk in the Harvard College Observatory.
Annie at her desk in the Harvard College Observatory. | Source

Annie Jump Cannon was born in 1863 to a state senator and his wife. Very few would expect her to become more than a society girl, but Annie's life would be far more than anyone expected.

Early in her childhood, Annie showed a keen interest in the stars. Her mother recognized and encouraged her interest, and Annie went on to attend Wellesley College and study physics and astronomy. Yet only a few years into her studies, tragedy struck. Annie was stricken with scarlet fever, a disease which left her almost completely deaf. Despite this setback, Annie finished her studies and graduated in 1884 with a degree in physics.

Yet Annie would have to put her career on hold. She returned home to care for her ailing mother. For the next ten years, Annie nurtured the woman who had encouraged her passions. Upon her mother's death, Annie returned to those passions - attending graduate courses in astronomy, spectroscopy, and photography at Wellesley. She also worked as a junior physics teacher, and enrolled at Radcliffe Women's College at Harvard as a "special student."

Her status as a special student granted Annie access to one of the foremost laboratories for studying the stars: Harvard College Observatory. Only two years into her graduate studies, Annie was hired as part of the observatory's female staff, which were known as the Harvard Computers.

The Harvard Computers were one of the most important groups of scholars to exist in astronomy. As one of the computers, Annie's role was to reduce data and carry out astronomical observations in order to finish the Henry Draper Catalog - the very first catalog of the visible sky. Specifically, Annie took over the work of her predecessors (Nettier Farrar, Williamina Felming, and Antonio Maury) in analyzing thousands of stars in order to classify them by spectra. Annie developed her own scheme for the data, developing the OBAFGKM classification system. Based on the strength of Blamer absorption lines (or stellar temperatures), Annie's system was the solution to a problem that had plagued astronomers for years. Using the mnemonic device, "Oh, Be A Fine Girl - Kiss Me!", many astronomers were able to learn the system.

Within five years of beginning her work, Annie published her first catalog of stellar spectra in 1901. The catalog utilized her new system, disseminating it and the knowledge it derived from the stars, to astronomers everywhere. Yet it would be another 21 years until the International Astronomical Union passed a resolution to formally adopt her stellar classification system.

In the meantime, Annie had more work to do. In 1907, she obtained her master's degree. She continued to work at the Harvard College Observatory, and went on to classify the most stars in a lifetime ever achieved - nearly 350,000! At the height of her career, Annie could classify three stars per minute just by looking at their spectral patterns, and she could also classify stars down to the ninth magnitude (which is sixteen times fainter than the human eye can see) using only a magnifying lens. Her findings were published in the Draper Catalogues. By the end of her career, Annie had also discovered 300 variable stars, five novae, and one spectroscopic binary. She had earned the title, "Census Taker of the Sky."

Annie also achieved several firsts for women in astronomy. In 1925, she was the first recipient of an honorary doctorate from Oxford University, and would later receive honorary doctorates from the University of Groningen and Oglethorpe University. She became the first woman elected as officer of the American Astronomical Society, and was the first woman to receive the Henry Draper Medal in 1931. She also worked as an ambassador for the Harvard College Observatory, helping broker partnerships and exchange of equipment between the international community, and represented professional women at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. Annie was eventually made Curator of Astronomical Photographs, and in 1938, was appointed William C. Bond Astronomer. She died on April 13, 1941.

Emily the Engineer

Left: A c. 1896 portrait of Emily Warren Roebling. Right: A sculpture at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge honors Emily, Washington, and John Roebling.
Left: A c. 1896 portrait of Emily Warren Roebling. Right: A sculpture at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge honors Emily, Washington, and John Roebling. | Source

Another incredible STEM woman whose father was a politician was Emily Roebling. Born in 1843, Emily was the second youngest of twelve children. At the age of fifteen, she enrolled at the Georgetown Visitation Convent in Washington, D.C., where she studied history, geography, rhetoric and grammar, algebra, French, and housekeeping.

During the Civil War, Emily's parents died. She was left in the care of her older brother, Gouverneur Warren, who was serving as a commander in the Fifth Army Corps. In February of 1864, Emily left school to visit her brother. While at the encampment, she met her brother's friend and fellow soldier, Washington Roebling. The pair hit it off and were married only a year later. They spent their honeymoon in Europe - although instead of seeing all the great sites, they also spent time researching technical issues for a very special project.

That project was the Brooklyn Bridge. Emily's father-in-law, John A. Roebling, was the Chief Engineer and architect of the bridge, which would connect Brooklyn to Manhattan over the East River. Yet in 1869, John died and Emily's husband took over the project. Only three years later, tragedy struck again when Washington contracted "the bends," also known as decompression sickness, after working on the caissons for the bridge. The disease left Washington bedridden and partially paralyzed, fearful that he wouldn't live to finish the project.

That's when Emily stepped in. She immediately took over the project, becoming Washington's messenger and on-site overseer.

She served as a liaison between Washington and the engineers and laborers working on the bridge, relaying directions and information while also managing crises, media skepticism, and various scandals. In order to improve her management of the project, Emily undertook studies of her own, learning about the strength of materials, stress analysis, cable construction, and other civil engineering topics. She also kept records, answered mail, and represented her husband at social functions. Her duties were so varied and public that many suspected she was actually the Chief Engineer of the bridge, and she was a daily presence at the construction site for fourteen years. Her efforts ensured that the Roebling family led the Brooklyn Bridge project from start to finish.

The Brooklyn Bridge under construction, c. 1872-1887.
The Brooklyn Bridge under construction, c. 1872-1887. | Source
The Brooklyn Bridge today.
The Brooklyn Bridge today. | Source

The Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883 - nearly 11 years after Emily had taken over. At the bridge's dedication ceremonies, Emily's contributions were honored by Congressman Abram S. Hewitt, who stated the bridge was

"...an everlasting monument to the self-sacrificing devotion of woman and of her capacity for that higher education from which she has been too long disbarred."

Emily was the first person to cross the bridge when it opened on May 24, 1883. She rode in an open carriage and carried a rooster to symbolize her victory. Workers raised their hats and cheered as she passed.

After completing the bridge, Emily would go on to complete many engineering projects. She moved to Trenton, New Jersey, with her family, where she designed and built their new mansion. She traveled extensively, attending the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and was presented to Queen Victoria in London in 1896. She also served as a nurse and construction foreman at Montauk, a Long Island Camp for returning troops from the Spanish American War. In 1899, she completed a law degree from New York University. Emily would likely have gone on to do more amazing things, but she died in 1903 from cancer. Today, the Brooklyn Bridge is a National Historic Landmark, and Emily's contributions are commemorated by two plaques, one on each tower.

Is Your Home Secure? Thank Marie!

Finally, there's the little-known tale of the woman who invented the first home security system. Today, many homes and businesses are protected by complex systems of video and audio surveillance. Yet until the 1960s, this wasn't the case.

Born in Queens, New York, Marie Van Brittan Brown is a relatively obscure woman. We don't know much about her life from her birth in 1922 until she appeared in newspapers in the mid-1960s. Marie was a nurse and married Albert Brown, an electronics technician. As a nurse, Marie worked long and erratic hours. She was often home alone at odd hours of the day or night.

In the mid-1960s, Marie's neighborhood in Queens experienced a drastic increase in crime. The police were often slow to respond to emergencies. As someone who slept during the day or was home alone at night, Marie became a bit fearful for her safety and that of her neighbors.

In 1966, Marie and her husband invented a home security system to protect Marie. The system used a camera and monitor so that Marie could identify who was at the door without opening it. The security system had a set of four peepholes and a camera that could slide up and down to look out each one. Anything the camera picked up would appear on a monitor inside the home. Marie placed the monitor in her bedroom, and added a two-way microphone at the door so she could converse with visitors. She also added a button that could be pushed to signal a security firm, watchman, or nearby neighbor in the event of trouble, as well as a button that could unlock the front door remotely.

At left, a picture of Marie.  At right, the sketches for her security system as filed in her patent.
At left, a picture of Marie. At right, the sketches for her security system as filed in her patent. | Source

In August of 1966, Marie and her husband filed for a patent. Their system was the first ever home security system with audio and video capabilities. In an interview with the New York Times in 1969, Marie pointed out that while using the new system, “a woman alone could set off an alarm immediately by pressing a button, or if the system were installed in a doctor’s office, it might prevent holdups by drug addicts.” The patent was approved in December of 1969 as U.S. Patent Number 3482037A, and served as a basis for thirteen subsequent inventions and camera closed-circuit television security systems.

Marie received an award from the National Scientists Committee for her invention, but the units were never manufactured on a commercial scale. Today, units based on their design are used in multi-dwelling buildings throughout the United States. Marie died in Queens, New York, in 1999.

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Tiffany R Isselhardt

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      • Rochelle Frank profile image

        Rochelle Frank 

        24 months ago from California Gold Country

        What amazing stories-- that we never hear. This was all new, and very intresting to me.

        I could have mistaken the photo of Annie Cannon for my grandmother if I didn't know better. What she is sitting in front of looks like a laptop -- interesting to learn that she was a "Computer".

        I need to catch up with your work.

      • lions44 profile image

        CJ Kelly 

        24 months ago from Auburn, WA

        Learned a lot. Great job. I knew of Roebling but she was the only one. Sharing everywhere.

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