Alice Everett

Quick Info

15 May 1865
Glasgow, Scotland
21 July 1949
Hampton Hill, Middlesex, England

Alice Everett was a mathematician and astronomer who studied the mathematical tripos at Girton College, worked at the Royal Observatory Greenwich and then at the Potsdam Astrophysical Observatory. She had a second career working on optics at the National Physical Laboratory. Her final career was working on the early developments of television broadcasting.


Alice Everett was the daughter of Joseph David Everett (1831-1904) and his wife Jessie Fraser (1841-1924). Joseph Everett, born near Ipswich, Suffolk, had become a mathematics teacher at Mr Thorowgood's school at Totteridge, near Barnet before winning a scholarship to study mathematics and physics at Glasgow University. He graduated with First Class Honours in 1857 and became professor of mathematics in King's College, Windsor, Nova Scotia, Canada in 1859. He married Jessie Fraser on 3 September 1862 at Blythswood Hill, Glasgow and continued his professorship in Canada until 1864 when he returned to Glasgow as assistant to the Professor of Mathematics, Hugh Blackburn. He then worked for William Thomson. His wife, Jessie Fraser, was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, the daughter of the Revd Alexander Fraser, who became Congregational minister of Ewing Place Chapel, Glasgow. In fact Joseph and Jessie Everett were married by the Revd Alexander Fraser. They had six children, including: Alice Everett (1865-1949), the subject of the biography; Wilfred Hermann Everett (1869-1945); Edith Maud Everett (1871-1960); Genevieve Lilian Everett (1877-1942); and Alexander Fraser Everett (1879-1917).

In 1867 Joseph Everett was appointed as professor of natural philosophy at Queen's College, Belfast and the family moved to that city. Except for Alice, who was born in Glasgow, all Joseph and Jessie's other children were born in Belfast. Alice attended Miss Hardy's preparatory school in Belfast, then went to The Ladies' Collegiate School in Belfast. This independent girls' school had been founded in 1859 and has been known as Victoria College since 1888. She then attended the Methodist College in Belfast which had opened in 1868 with the aim of educating "young ladies" on equal terms with the boys [4]:-
Alice was educated at the Methodist College in Belfast, a coeducational day school with a strong ethos of "plain living and high thinking" which after initial struggles had achieved a high level of academic distinction. She was a prize pupil whose later attainments are recorded with pride in the annals of the College.
Everett was faced with some difficult decisions. How could a girl from Belfast get a university degree at this time? The Royal University of Ireland had received its Royal Charter in 1880 and could award degrees to both men and women who successfully passed their examinations, but no teaching was offered. In 1882 the Queen's University in Belfast admitted women to lectures so that they could study for the examinations set by the Royal University of Ireland. In England, beginning in 1882, the University of Cambridge allowed women to study and be examined for a degree, but women could not be awarded a degree. But what did Everett want to study? She said [1]:-
... for a year after leaving school I gave my attention to art studies, and have never regretted it. At one time I hesitated between Girton and the studios. My mother has much artistic power, and I had some taste in the same direction.
Everett then chose to study at the Queen's University of Belfast with the intention of taking the degree examinations of the Royal University of Ireland. She sat the first year scholarship examination in science in 1884 and was ranked first. The College lawyers were consulted to see if the regulations allowed women to receive scholarships. The decision was that only men were eligible so, despite coming top, Everett was denied a scholarship. She won a scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge, however, and she matriculated there in 1886.

At Girton College, Everett studied the mathematical tripos. Annie Russell (later Annie Maunder) also entered Girton College in 1886 to study the mathematical tripos. They were two out of the 29 women who matriculated at Girton College in that year. One of Everett's lecturers at Cambridge was William Henry Young who had been appointed as a fellow in 1886. Everett sat the Royal University of Ireland's examinations in 1887 and was awarded a B.A. with honours in mathematics and mathematical physics. In 1889 she was awarded a Master's Degree by the Royal University of Ireland. Also in 1889, Everett sat the Cambridge mathematical tripos examinations and was ranked as a 'senior optime', equivalent to a Second Class degree, but, as a woman, could not be awarded the degree. A 'senior optime' degree was a disappointment to Everett who had hoped to be ranked among the Wranglers. She said [1]:-
I tried High School teaching for a term as a stop gap, though not desiring to be drawn into the universal drift towards teaching.
In fact she taught mathematics at a Girls' High School on the island of Jersey but was delighted when offered a position at the Royal Observatory Greenwich [1]:-
The question of employing women at the Royal Observatory arose when the new photographic section was started, and Mrs Huggins, who, like her distinguished husband, has earned a world-wide reputation as an astronomer, interested herself, I believe, in the matter. The first I heard of it was when the Observatory authorities wrote to ask if I would come.
In fact employing women was an experiment by the Astronomer Royal, William Christie (1845-1922). Christie had been appointed to that position in 1881 following the ill-health retirement of George Airy. With increasing work loads, he had tried to secure additional funding for new appointments but had not been successful. He then came up with a scheme of employing well-qualified women who, because they were women, could be paid a minimal salary. Everett's application had been supported by Robert Stawell Ball, the Royal Astronomer of Ireland, and she took up her position on the staff at Greenwich on 15 April 1890, being one of four women employed for Christie's experiment. Rebekah Higgitt said in the interview [3]:-
... the title of the job she had was a Supernumerary Computer, which really put her on the same level as kind of boys who joined the Observatory straight out of school, and did fairly basic, repetitious kind of work, dealing with number-crunching, calculating what they called 'reducing the observations' so they could be printed. So that was her title and she was paid on that kind of level and yet she had the qualifications of one of the top astronomers there - a First Assistant or a Chief Assistant at the Observatory.
Everett herself said in the 1893 interview [1] that:-
... the awkward technical title 'Assistant' is applied to those gentlemen who hold permanent posts at the Observatory under the Astronomer Royal. They are appointed partly by competitive Civil Service examinations, and are generally University men of good standing. Under them work boy computers. It is doubtful whether women are eligible for the examination, and candidates must be nominated by the Astronomer Royal, who refused to take the responsibility when we applied.
The British Astronomical Association was founded in October 1890 by Walter Maunder, with support of others, to provide a society more aimed at amateur astronomers than the Royal Astronomical Society. It was set up with a Council consisting of 48 members, four of whom were women. Everett was a member of the Association from its founding. The Royal Astronomical Society, however, was not prepared to have women members. In 1892 Everett was one of three women proposed as fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society, the other two being Annie Russell and Elizabeth Brown (1830-1899). Stuart Mathieson writes [13]:-
In 1892, [Edward Walter Maunder] nominated ... Annie Russell and Alice Everett as fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society, with the "him" on their application forms crossed out and replaced with "her". One member quipped that the nominations would make Royal Astronomical Society meetings more social, "and all we shall require is a piano and a fiddle", while another challenged the legality of any election; ultimately neither were elected.
Although Everett was assigned to the Astrographic Department when she was appointed, for her first task she was re-computing meridian transit observations until June 1891. At that time the initial commissioning of the Astrographic Telescope was completed so she was able to work at the Astrographic Department on the Carte du Ciel project. The Carte du Ciel project had been initialised in 1887 by Paris Observatory director Amédée Mouchez, who realised the potential of the new dry plate photographic process to revolutionise the process of making maps of stars. A congress, held in the Paris Observatory on 16 April 1887, had resolved: (i) to create a chart of all stars down to the fourteenth magnitude, the plates to be in duplicate (ii) to create a second series of photographs with shorter exposure, including stars to the eleventh magnitude, to be made concurrently to form a catalogue and to determine fundamental positions in the first series. Eighteen observatories, including the Royal Observatory Greenwich, collaborated on this colossal task, which would require of at least 20600 photographic frames. The project gained much attention at first but this became less as the size of the task became clear and it was never completed, the final decision to abandon it coming in 1970.

Three of the "lady computers" who had begun work at the Royal Observatory Greenwich soon left and, at Everett's suggestion, Annie Russell joined her taking up her appointment on 1 September 1891. It is hard to know now exactly what Everett did since the records at the Royal Observatory do not contain nearly as much information for women as the records do for the men working there at the time. One wonders whether the Royal Observatory in some ways did not want to admit that the women were doing excellent work.

In 1892 the position of assistant at the Dunsink Observatory, the observatory for Trinity College Dublin, became vacant. The director, Robert Ball, had left Dunsink when appointed to the Lowndean Chair at Cambridge in February 1892 and his only assistant Arthur Rambaut (1859-1923), had been promoted to Director of Dunsink Observatory. The Observatory had acquired a 15-inch reflector and were about to begin a programme of stellar photography. Everett was well qualified in stellar photography and her application for the post of assistant was supported by the Astronomer Royal, William Christie, who [6]:-
... wrote her a glowing testimonial, referring to her experience with the various instruments, her familiarity with computation and other qualifications. He described her as "a skilful photographer who has made herself expert in the manipulation of the new photographic equatorial" and who carried her duties "with much intelligence and determination." Her experience would, he believed, qualify her for such a post as that of assistant at Dunsink Observatory.
Her application was also supported by the leading astronomer William Huggins (1824-1910), Robert Ball, Edward James Stone (1831-1897), who worked at the Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford, and Arthur Downing. In her application Everett [6]:-
... declared that she was very strong and was used to working with men at Greenwich where she and Miss Russell "seem to work along quite naturally in the midst of them ... I do not think that my sex should be any real obstacle, though to some at first, the presenting of an unusual idea may prejudice against it."
She was not offered the post and continued to work at Greenwich. In the interview [1] she spoke about her love of observing:-
Observing is the part of the work I like best. You feel that you really are an astronomer then, doing practical business. Besides, there is a certain charm about having the handling of a fine and powerful instrument. I scarcely know why it is, but I find the hours fly when I am observing, though the old hands say it grows very monotonous in the course of years. In winter, though the roof is partly open and the dome kept at the temperature of the outer air, we are too actively employed to feel the cold much, unless it be windy. In summer, though, perhaps, the irregular hours may prove trying in time, the quiet, fresh night is much pleasanter than the hot and dusty London day. Towards dawn it is quite interesting to observe what a difference the dim light makes in the aspect of the earth.
She was elected to the Council of the British Astronomical Association in 1892 and became a secretary of the Association in October 1893, holding this post for two years [1]:-
I am one of the secretaries of the British Astronomical Association; Mr Duke is the other. Nothing could be more generous and considerate than the spirit which that Association has shown towards women. Please be sure to say in your paper how grateful we are for the help and encouragement its officers and council have given us.
Her published work over the years 1891-95 included the papers: The Total Lunar Eclipse of November 15, 1891 (1891); On the photographic Magnitude of Nova Aurigae (1892); The total solar eclipse (1893); Total Eclipse of the Sun, August 9, 1896 (1894); and Note on the binary Leonis (1895).

Everett resigned her post at the Royal Observatory Greenwich on 5 July 1895 and took up a 3-year appointment at the Potsdam Astrophysical Observatory, starting on 1 October 1895. There she replaced Friedrich Karl Arnold (1870-1964) who had a short-term position at Potsdam from 1893 to 1895. At Potsdam Everett continued to work on the Carte du Ciel project publishing Galactic Longitude and Latitude of Poles of Binary-Star Orbits (1896). She measured and reduced the positions of 22,000 stars on 72 plates in the year 1897.

Her appointment at the Potsdam Astrophysical Observatory ended in July 1898 and she then was an Assistant for one year at observatory at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, USA [4]:-
Alive Everett was employed as an assistant for one year, 1898-99, at the observatory of Vassar College, USA, the women's college where Mary Whitney, successor to Maria Mitchell, was professor of astronomy. This small institution had only one member of staff besides Miss Whitney, and Alice Everett no doubt was pleased to have the opportunity of working there, even temporarily. Her year was fruitful and resulted in two papers jointly written with Mary Whitney on observations of minor planets and a comet in the Astrophysical Journal.
After the Vassar College post ended, she applied for a position at the Lick Observatory where the Director James Edward Keeler (1857-1900) was keen to employ her. He tried to get funding for her salary from Phoebe Hearst, an American philanthropist, feminist and suffragist. Keeler asked Hearst if she would fund a position for women at Lick Observatory, saying he had a very suitable person to fill it. He wrote:-
Miss Everett is a lady of distinction in astronomical science who is admirably qualified to aid us in a most important part of our work - the measurement of our photographs of star spectra in which we are falling sadly behind.
Unlike the Royal Observatory, he proposed a salary matching her skills, but Phoebe Hearst replied saying unfortunately she could not help. Everett, now without a job, returned to England. At the time of the 1901 Census she was living with her parents, now retired, at 11 Leopold Road, Ealing, London. Her siblings, Edith, Genevieve and Alexander are also living at this address and the family had a housemaid and a cook. Alexander is listed as a student, but no occupation is given for Alice, Edith, or Genevieve who are all unmarried.

Although Everett gave no occupation at the time of the 1901 census, in fact she was working with her father translating a German scientific text by H Hoverstadt into English. The book Jena glass and its scientific and industrial applications was published in 1902. She had a couple of astronomy papers published by the British Astronomical Association: Photographs of Cross-sections of Hollow Pencils formed by Oblique Transmission through an Annulus of a Lens (1902); and The Jena Glass Works, with special reference to Astronomical Objectives (1903). Her father died in 1904 and Everett's interests turned to optics.

In 1912 she published Clouds and shadows in the journal Nature. The paper gives her address as Milbourne Lane, Esher, Surrey and begins:-
Mr Cyril Crossland's description of great shadow bands cast across the sky at sunset interested me, for I well remember being impressed by a similar phenomenon when crossing a New Mexican prairie, with the sun setting behind the Rockies. I have seen the bands in England, but imperfectly. To a non-expert, like myself, Mr Crossland's remark, "The shadows being cast by the reflected light of the glowing clouds in the west, not by the sun itself, of course", presents difficulties. A mass of glowing cloud seems too extensive a luminous source to cast definite shadows of peaks comparatively near it. Further, the sun being beyond the cloud, the bulk of the sunlight reflected by the cloud would fall the wrong way. Long after the sun's rays are cut off from the spectator, they will still be shining upon clouds high overhead, and therefore able to cast shadows.
She published another paper in Nature in 1913, namely The Halo in the Ricefield and the Spectre of the Brocken. Again her address is Milbourne Lane, Esher. She ends this paper as follows:-
Perhaps I may take this opportunity to record another little optical observation of different character. Once - I think it was towards the close of the hot summer of 1908 - watching, from the top of a cliff some 800 ft high, the sun setting over the sea, I saw the upper half of the disc look like a double staircase; there were three or four distinct, almost rectangular, steps cut out of the limb symmetrically on either side. When most of the disc had sunk out of sight, the small portion remaining was suggestive of the lid of a teapot with a knob on top. Some lines of light cloud about the horizon showed the existence of horizontal stratification in the atmosphere, and the strange distortion of the solar limb was evidently due to refraction through horizontal strata with extraordinary sharpness of boundary and difference of density.
World War I saw many men called for military service and women were sought to fill vacant positions. Everett was employed for a year in the optical laboratory of Hilger, a company founded by two German precision optical instrument technicians Adam and Otto Hilger in 1874. The company was based in Islington, London, and specialised in the manufacture of precision optical and mechanical instruments. On 9 October 1917 Everett joined the National Physical Laboratory as a Junior Assistant in the Physics Division. She had a highly successful career working on theoretical problems concerning aberration in lens and mirrors. She retired at age 60 on 15 May 1925.

Remarkably, Everett started on yet another career. The Regent Street Polytechnic, which today is the University of Westminster, offered evening classes and Everett took classes in practical wireless there in the winters of 1926-27 and 1927-28. After passing the wireless examinations in the Spring of 1928 she spent session 1928-29 undertaking research in the Engineering Department of the City and Guilds College which had been incorporated into Imperial College London in 1910. Even before this year, Everett had become a founder fellow of the Television Society which had been formed on 7 September 1927. Let us note that this Society, which became the Royal Television Society in 1966, was founded nine years before television broadcasts began in 1936.

Everett now began to undertake research on the apparatus, called a mirror drum, used to produce the scanning light beam for televisions. One such device was being developed by the Baird Television Company with Everett making substantial improvements to the mirror drum and on 30 January 1933 Everett and the Baird Television Company jointly applied for a patent. The application was abandoned, however, when the BBC decided to employ a different company. Everett continued to support the Television Society and in 1938 she was awarded a pension in recognition to her services to physical sciences.

In 1939 Everett was living at 7 Riverside, Lower Hampton Road, Sunbury-on-Thames, Middlesex. She gives her occupation as Science (Radio and Optical Engineering) and is sharing the house with Edith Gertrude Wilson, a 47-year old Scientific Assistant and Abstractor. She continued to live at this address until her final illness when she went to Gloucester House nursing home, Hampton Hill, Middlesex where she died aged 84.

Finally let us quote Everett's own words, made in 1893, about her interests outside science [1]:-
Tennis and golf are among my favourite pursuits, and I probably owe my wiry health to a liking for exercise and fresh air. At home, when we generally spent the summer at some wild spot on the beautiful though stormy coast of Antrim, I used to enjoy the rough-and-tumble boating in fishermen's sturdy tubs, in which we all revelled.

References (show)

  1. A Student of the Stars - Half an hour with Miss Alice Everett, M.A., The Sketch (22 November 1893), 192.
  2. R L Bishop, Joseph Everett and the King's College Observatory, Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada 72 (1978), 138-147.
  3. L Blaser and R Higgitt, Alice Everett, a woman in science, Royal Museums Greenwich (11 March 2011).
  4. M T Brück, Alice Everett and Annie Russell Maunder: torch-bearing women astronomers, Irish Astronomical Journal 21 (1994), 280-291.
  5. M T Brück, Women in Early British and Irish Astronomy: Stars and Satellites (Springer Science & Business Media, 2009).
  6. M T Brück, Lady Computers at Greenwich in the Early 1890s, Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 36 (1995), 83-95.
  7. G Dolan, Christie's 'Lady Computers' - the astrographic pioneers of Greenwich, Royal Observatory Greenwich (2014-2017).
  8. G Dolan, The post of computer, Royal Observatory Greenwich (2014-2017).
  9. Everett, Alice, Survey of Astronomical History, Astronomers: Middlesex, The Society for the History of Astronomy.
  10. R Higgitt, Everett, Alice, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (12 July 2018).
  11. R Higgitt, Women at the ROG - Alice Everett, Royal Museums Greenwich (31 July 2009).
  12. C H Lees, revised by Graeme J N Gooday, Everett, Joseph David, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (23 September 2004).
  13. S Mathieson, Astronomer Annie Maunder and old battles against 'he' and 'him', The Irish Times (13 May 2021).
  14. R McKim, A different sort of society, A&G 57 (2016), 4.14-4.17.
  15. M B Ogilvie, Obligatory amateurs: Annie Maunder (1868-1947) and British women astronomers at the dawn of professional astronomy, British Journal for the History of Science 22 (2000), 67-84.

Additional Resources (show)

Other websites about Alice Everett:

  1. Dictionary of National Biography
  2. zbMATH entry

Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update September 2021