Annie Russell Maunder

Hired as a 'lady computer' at the Royal Observatory in 1891, Annie spent five years calculating and observing at Greenwich. In 1895 she then married E. Walter Maunder, the First Assistant in charge of the Photographic and Spectroscopic Department. And, unusually for this period, marriage did not spell the end of her career in astronomy.

From the Emerald Isle to Greenwich

Annie was born in County Tyrone 14 April 1868, and was educated at home and at the Ladies' Collegiate School in Belfast before gaining a scholarship to Girton College, one of Cambridge's new women’s colleges. She graduated with honours in the notoriously rigorous mathematical tripos in 1889. After a year teaching mathematics in a girls’ school with a good salary and board, she applied to work at Greenwich as one of the few female 'supernumerary computers' - those hired on a short-term basis rather than being permanent members of staff.

Usually computers were boys, arriving straight from local schools. But hiring women allowed William Christie, then Astronomer Royal, the luxury of gaining well-trained mathematicians at a cheap rate (they were paid about £4 a month, rising to £6 as 'soon as efficiency in the use of the Photographic Equatorial is acquired'). The experiment was something of a stop-gap, for Christie was in the process of persuading the Admiralty to increase the Observatory's (male) workforce. There may also have been a shortage of women prepared to accept the low wages: as Annie wrote, it 'is so small that I could scarcely live on it'.

Established in the wake of the Transit of Venus expedition of 1874, the Observatory had acquired several telescopes that were specifically designed for photographing the Sun. By reusing these photoheliographs at Greenwich, astronomers could take daily photographs of the solar disc as a record of the changing pattern of sunspots. Annie worked alongside her colleagues in taking the photographs, making notes, developing the plates and reviewing the images in detail.

Image of The Dallmeyer photoheliograph
The Dallmeyer photoheliograph, used by Annie Russell to measure sunspots.

The stars align

Both her professional and personal lives were set to change when, in December 1895, she married Edward Walter Maunder, her supervisor in the Solar Department. This meant relinquishing her job in accordance with civil service rules. However, she continued to develop her astronomical skills as a volunteer and focused her energies on organising solar eclipse expeditions with her husband through the British Astronomical Association. This allowed Annie access to the equipment and resources needed for serious astronomical work. She was a keen photographer and achieved considerable success in capturing images of the sun’s atmosphere during the brief few minutes of a total solar eclipse.

On 22 January 1898, she photographed an enormous ray-like structure appearing to burst from the Sun: a coronal streamer. She was positioned in India to capture the total solar eclipse using a camera she has retrofitted herself.

Legacy

The husband-and-wife team often published their articles in joint names and sought to bring astronomy to new audiences through newspaper articles and books on popular astronomy. These included a catalogue of some 600 recurrent sunspot groups observed and photographed at Greenwich (1907), and The Heavens and their Story (1910), a book which Walter admits in its introduction was 'almost wholly the work of my wife.'

During the First World War, the Maunders came out of retirement to fill roles at the Observatory that had been left vacant by staff serving in the trenches. By 1916, the Royal Astronomical Society had elected to admit women members and Annie Maunder was one of the first Fellows.

She survived her husband by almost 20 years and late in life became an authority in ancient astronomies.

The Annie Maunder Astrographic Telescope

The first new telescope in over 60 years was installed in the Altazimuth Pavilion at the Royal Observatory in 2018. It is especially designed for use with digital cameras and will help astronomers research the wonders of the Universe, as well as communicate them to the widest possible public - in the spirit of its namesake, Annie Maunder.

Find out more

Image of the Annie Maunder Astrographic Telescope in the Altazimuth Pavilion
The Annie Maunder Astrographic Telescope in the Altazimuth Pavilion

 

Banner image: Annie Scott Dill Maunder (née Russell) by Lafayette 1931 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Find out more about Annie and other amazing women scientists in Forgotten Women: The Scientists by Zing Tsjeng