Ernst Öpiku kompuuter-tüdrukud Tartu tähetornis

Ernst Öpik's calculator girls at the Tartu Observatory


  • Lea Leppik University of Tartu Faculty of Social Sciences



Ernst Öpik (1893 Estonia –1985 Ireland), Estonia’s most famous astronomer in the interwar period, is known for his extremely high productivity and being active in a variety of fields. In his work, he was greatly aided by calculators who were employed by the observatory from 1923 (usually 2–5 at a time) and paid a small fee. Whereas many observatories all over the world followed Harvard’s example and formed mainly all-female calculation bureaus, Tartu employed an equal number of young men and women in the 1920s–1930s (9 people of both genders are mentioned in the records). Their greatest project was processing the data of meteor observations made in 1932–34 in the US, at the Arizona Desert. A 7-member calculation team led by Alide Piiri, Ernst Öpik’s future wife, was occupied with this project. As the financing came from the US (Estonian calculators were willing to work for less and more could be hired), their work is not that well documented in Tartu, and not all names of the employees are known, but at least some of them were experienced calculators who had already worked at the observatory before.
Young men who worked as calculators quickly rose to assistants and several would eventually become renowned scientists themselves (e.g., Grigori Kuzmin, Aksel Kipper, Harald Keres, Jakov Gabovitsh, Robert Livländer). None of the girls were even promoted to assistant. The society still didn’t accept women in those professions and the girls themselves didn’t place any demands either. Most of them did not study sciences, so they must have seen work at the observatory as a way to earn some money. Out of nine girls, only one was studying astronomy at the university, but she died very young, before she managed to accomplish anything of significance. The Tartu calculator girls were not necessarily unmarried, and marriage did not mean they had to give up working. Women only became part of the regular staff at the observatory during Soviet times (the first was Marta Blum-Koppel who became senior laboratory assistant in 1941). Nevertheless, the calculators were of great value to the observatory. Öpik could not have been as productive as he was without these often anonymous helpers.


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