Who doesn’t love a peaceful night when you can look up at the sky and see a whole bunch of stars?
How we’ve learned to classify and identify stars is a fascinating part of history, and none of it would be the same without Annie Jump Cannon, the astronomer who invented the important Harvard spectral system.
Annie was born in 1863 in Delaware. Her mother inspired her to pursue a career in science, and they even had their own at-home observatory where they’d stargaze together when she was a little girl.
Annie attended Wellesley College to study physics and astronomy. She graduated in 1884 as valedictorian. However, she didn’t start any major science jobs right out of college.
Instead, Annie traveled and became really interested in photography. She had a published book of photographs sold at the Chicago World Fair in 1893.
Around this time, Annie lost the majority of her hearing. Although the exact cause is unknown, many scholars believe it was because of scarlet fever.
After Annie’s mother died in 1894, she returned to science and furthered her education. She took graduate classes back at Wellesley College, then, in 1895, she enrolled as a “special student” to study astronomy at Radcliffe College, the all women’s college attached to Harvard.
She was eventually hired to work under astronomer Edward C. Pickering as an assistant at the Harvard Observatory. There, she helped work on Edward’s massive project, which was to record, classify and catalog various stars.
Annie worked very hard and published her first catalog of stars in 1901 before earning her master’s degree in 1907. While classifying the stars, Annie devised a clever system to classify them according to their temperature, which was a much simpler process. That’s how she came up with the Harvard spectral system, which astronomers still use today!