Essential Information

Royal Observatory

31 Jul 2009

Back in April we met Annie Russell Maunder, but she was not, in fact, the first woman to be paid for her work at Greenwich under Astronomer Royal William Christie's new scheme. Russell's friend Alice Everett (1865-1949) had begun work as a supernumerary computer almost two years earlier, in January 1890.

Like Russell, Everett had attended Girton College, Cambridge and took the Mathematical Tripos, which essentially made both women as well-qualified as the Chief Assistant, Frank Dyson, who began work in 1894. Before this Everett had also attended Queen's College, Belfast, where she had taken first place in the first-year scholarship examination - causing the college authorities to question and decide against the eligibility of women in the competition.

At Greenwich, Everett was assigned to work in the Astrographic Department, contributing to the international Carte du Ciel project which aimed to map the skies using the still-new technique of stellar photography. Although her job-title was 'computer' (i.e. those who carried out routine calculations to 'reduce' raw observational data into usable tables), Everett was in fact trained to use the Observatory's new astrographic telescope in order to take the photographs, as well as then measuring the plates, calculating the co-ordinates of the stars and reducing the data for the catalogue. She also made observations for the Transit Department with the Prime-Meridian-defining Airy Transit Circle. Everett necessarily worked at the ROG at night, though we don't know whether she made her way through the park or stayed on-site when it was dark.

Image removed.
The Royal Observatory, Greenwich's astrographic telescope

Again like Russell, Everett was proposed but rejected for fellowship of the Royal Astronomical Society and instead found an outlet for her enthusiasm in the amateur British Astronomical Association, although she published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society as well as in the BAA's journal, The Observatory and elsewhere.

After five years at Greenwich, Everett moved to the observatory in Potsdam, Europe's leading institution for astrophysical research, to continue work on the Carte du Ciel. This was only a temporary post, and after three years Everett was on the move again, this time for a year at the observatory of Vassar College. She failed to find another post in the USA and returned to London in 1900, where her interests turned to optics. She undertook a translation of a German optical text and carried out a number of experiments, but was unable to find regular paid work until the First World War, which gave many women an opportunity to enter the workforce. In 1917 she joined the staff of the National Physical Laboratory, where she remained until her retirement in 1925.

Even after retirement, Everett did not sit still. She took qualifications in electrical engineering and became involved with the Baird Television Company and Television Society, associations that were to last for the rest of her life. On her death in 1949 she left her library of scientific books to the Television Society.

For more information on and pictures of both these remarkable women, see Mary T. Brück, 'Alice Everett and Annie Russell Maunder torch bearing women astronomers'.