Annie Maunder: The Amazing Ulster-Scots Innovator- What is a sunspot?

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Updated on: Educator Review By: Michelle Connolly


Annie Maunder was a pioneering Ulster-Scots woman who made significant contributions to the field of solar astronomy. Born in Strabane, Northern Ireland, in 1868, her relentless pursuit of knowledge and her dedication to uncovering the mysteries of the cosmos helped to change the way we understand our own star, the Sun. In this article, we will explore the life and work of Annie Maunder, delving into her remarkable achievements and examining the obstacles she overcame as a woman in the male-dominated field of science.

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Ulster-Scots: The Sun with Sand and Sea

Early Life and Education

Annie Scott Dill Maunder was born to a Presbyterian minister and his wife, the sixth of ten children. She showed a keen interest in mathematics and science from an early age, and her family encouraged her to pursue her passions. Annie attended the Ladies’ Collegiate School in Belfast, where she excelled academically, becoming the top student in her class.

In 1886, Annie received a scholarship to study mathematics at the prestigious Girton College, Cambridge University. She excelled in her studies, achieving high marks in the difficult Mathematical Tripos exams. However, due to the discriminatory policies of the time, she was not awarded a degree, as women were not granted full membership at Cambridge until 1948.

Career at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich

Despite the challenges she faced, Annie’s talent did not go unnoticed. In 1891, she was offered a position as a ‘lady computer’ at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. This title referred to the female mathematicians and astronomers who were responsible for performing complex calculations and analyzing astronomical data.

Annie’s work at the Observatory focused on solar activity, particularly sunspots, solar flares, and the sun’s magnetic field. She worked alongside her future husband, Walter Maunder, an experienced solar astronomer. Together, they developed a deep and lasting partnership, both personally and professionally.

Annie and Walter’s Collaborative Work

The Maunders’ joint work on sunspots led them to make groundbreaking discoveries. They developed the ‘butterfly diagram,’ which showed that sunspots followed a distinct pattern, appearing at higher latitudes at the beginning of the solar cycle and migrating towards the solar equator as the cycle progressed. This discovery helped to enhance our understanding of the solar cycle and the behavior of sunspots.

The Maunders also played a pivotal role in observing the 1898 solar eclipse, traveling to India to photograph and study the phenomenon. Their observations and photographs of the solar corona during the eclipse provided crucial evidence supporting the existence of the sun’s magnetic field.

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Ulster Scots: Space Sky Background with a Solar Eclipse

Annie’s Innovative Methods

Annie Maunder was a trailblazer in many respects, not only as a woman in a male-dominated field but also in her innovative approach to solar observation. She was one of the first astronomers to use photographic plates to study the sun, recognizing that this technology could provide more accurate and detailed data than the human eye alone.

Using this method, she was able to capture images of the solar corona, revealing previously unknown structures and improving our understanding of the sun’s outer atmosphere. Annie also pioneered the use of spectroscopy in solar astronomy, which enabled her to study the sun’s composition and temperature.

Overcoming Obstacles

Annie’s groundbreaking work was not without its challenges. As a woman, she faced discrimination and prejudice throughout her career. When she married Walter Maunder in 1895, she was forced to resign from her position at the Royal Observatory, as it was deemed inappropriate for a married woman to continue working. Undeterred, she continued to collaborate with her husband and pursue her passion for solar astronomy from their home.

Furthermore, Annie’s accomplishments were often overlooked or attributed to her husband. Her contributions to their joint publications were frequently downplayed, and she was not given the recognition she deserved. Despite these setbacks, Annie Maunder remained steadfast in her pursuit of knowledge and her dedication to advancing the field of solar astronomy.

Later Life and Legacy

Annie’s perseverance paid off, and her contributions to astronomy began to be recognized later in her life. In 1915, she was finally granted membership in the Royal Astronomical Society, alongside other prominent women in the field, such as Agnes Clerke and Lady Huggins. Annie continued to work with her husband, publishing several books on astronomy and solar physics.

Following Walter’s death in 1928, Annie continued to work tirelessly in the field of astronomy, promoting public interest in the subject and advocating for the recognition of women in science. She traveled extensively, giving lectures on her work and attending conferences. In 1930, she became one of the first women to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

Annie Maunder passed away in 1947, leaving behind a lasting legacy of innovation and perseverance. Today, her groundbreaking work in solar astronomy is widely recognized and celebrated. In 2018, the Royal Astronomical Society honored her achievements by naming a prestigious annual lecture in her honor – the Annie Maunder Medal – awarded for exceptional contributions to outreach and public engagement in astronomy or geophysics.


Ulster-Scots like Annie Maunder’s story is one of resilience, innovation, and passion. Her accomplishments as an Ulster Scots woman in the field of solar astronomy were groundbreaking, and her contributions to our understanding of the sun have had a lasting impact. Despite the obstacles she faced, her dedication to her work and her belief in the importance of scientific discovery never wavered.

Annie Maunder serves as an inspiration for aspiring astronomers and scientists everywhere, demonstrating that with determination and passion, even the most daunting challenges can be overcome. Her legacy serves as a reminder of the vital role that women have played, and continue to play, in the pursuit of knowledge and the advancement of science.

Why not check out other fantastic Ulster-Scots Innovators, James Martin is just one of many with his famous invention the ejector seat,  Anne Acheson and her innovative plaster cast, John Boyd Dunlop and his Pneumatic Tyres and Frank Pantridge who inventeted the portable defibrillator!

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