Annie Jump Cannon (December 11, 1863 – April 13, 1941) was an American astronomer whose cataloguing work was instrumental in the development of contemporary stellar classification. With Edward C. Pickering, she is credited with the creation of the Harvard Classification Scheme, which was the first serious attempt to organize and classify stars based on their temperatures.
The daughter of shipbuilder and state senator Wilson Lee Cannon and his second wife, Mary Elizabeth Jump, Annie grew up in Dover, Delaware. Mary gave birth to two more daughters after Annie, in addition to the four step-children she inherited in the marriage. Annie's mother had a childhood interest in star-gazing, and she passed that interest along to her daughter.
Read more about Annie Jump Cannon and her work, free from Wellesley University.
At the time when Annie was a young woman, 19th century, it wasn’t the best idea for women to enter the scientific field. However Annie had a few things on her side. First was that other astronomers were more familiar with Annie’s endeavors than some of the men. Second was that her father made sure that she got into the college of her choice, Wellesley College in Massachusetts? Third was that a sudden mass of work appeared that needed to be done and it involved classifying stars. Fourth, a job opportunity for women as “computers” opened (meaning people who didn’t need computers for scientific work).
While at Wellesley Annie studied astronomy and physics. In 1884 she graduated and returned to Delaware for 10 years. Soon she was impatient to study and learn astronomy again. In 1894 she went deaf after a ‘bout’ with scarlet fever, her mother died, and she moved back to Wellesley to work as a junior physics teacher. She soon became a “special student” at Radcliff.
In 1894 Annie became a member of “Pickering’s women,” they were women hired by Harvard college director Edward Pickering to carry out astronomical calculations and to reduce data. Pickering’s approach to every science was to accumulate all the facts.
A fund was set up that supported the accumulating. Anna Draper was the widow of Henry Draper, a wealthy physician, and an amateur scientist. Pickering made the Henry Draper a long term project to obtain the optical spectra of as many stars as possible, also to index and classify stars by spectra. Measurements were hard enough, the development of a reasonable classification was as much as a problem in theory as fact accumulation.
Analysis began in 1896 by Nettie Farrer, whose place was taken after a few months by Williamina Fleming, because Nettie went away to be wed. Williamina examined the spectra of many stars and developed a classification system this work was carried on by Antonia Maury, she soon after developed a classification system of her own. However Pickering couldn’t sympathize with Maury’s insistence on theoretical worries that would undo her system.
Annie was left to continue with the project. She started by examining the bright southern hemisphere stars. To these stars she applied a third system, a division of stars into the spectral classes O, B, F, G, K, M, and so on.
Annie’s work was “theory laced” but simplified. How she could see the stars or stellar spectra was extraordinary. Her draper catalogues that listed nearly 400,000 were valued as the work of a single observer. Annie also published many other catalogues of variable stars including 300 that she discovered. Her career lasted more than 40 years in which time women won acceptance into science. Annie received many honorary awards and degrees. Annie Jump Cannon died April 13, 1941 after receiving a regular Harvard appointment as the William C. Bond Astronomer. She also received the Draper Medal -- which only one other female has won -- and she shared it with her male partner. After Annie died, many good things were said about her such as, “she was generally interested in all people” and “she had a priceless ability of being good company for anyone around.”