Hidden figures – time to acknowledge the rich history of women in science.

What if I told you that one of my favourite scientists was a foul-mouthed mathematical genius who wrote the first computer program, had a famously hedonistic politician for a father and who garnered their own reputation for drugs, drink, gambling and extra-marital affairs?  You would probably ask me “who is this guy”?

Countess of calculus

First of all, it’s not a guy; it’s a lady.  Well, a countess actually.  Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace to use her full title.

Given the mention of programming, you might also assume that she was a figure from the early days of 20th Century computing.  Well, think again.

Ada Lovelace (as she is commonly known) was born in 1815 and was the daughter of “mad, bad and dangerous to know” poet and peer Lord Byron.

Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace (sourced from Wikimedia Commons)

Byron left Ada’s mother just after she was born.  Accounts often imply that Ada’s embittered mother, a keen amateur mathematician, raised her on a diet of logic and mathematics to prevent her from developing her father’s “insane” poetic proclivities.  Regardless, Ada displayed a talent for and lifelong interest in mathematics.

Ada’s social circle included many celebrated and eminent figures from the time including Michael Faraday and Charles Dickens.  At 17, she attended a party thrown by an independently wealthy Cambridge scholar called Charles Babbage.  Babbage’s ambition, unfortunately never realised, was to build a giant, steam-powered computer that could print accurate mathematical tables.  At his party, Ada witnessed a demonstration of a small, hand-cranked prototype.  This demonstration had a profound effect on Ada’s life.

Programming pioneer

Her celebrated contribution to computing is a set of extensive notes and calculations appended to her translation of an Italian transcript describing Babbage’s proposed computer (the transcript was based on notes taken during a presentation given by Babbage in Turin).  Ada’s notes outline many modern computing concepts including loops, logic and the separation of hardware and software.  They also contain the first known example of computer programs, in the form of tables of numbers breaking down the steps by which the machine would process a series of complicated calculations.

Ada Lovelace’s “Diagram for the computation by the engine of the numbers of Bernoulli” (sourced from Wikimedia Commons)

Women omitted from the history of science?

So why am I telling you this?  Well, the chances are that you have never heard of Ada Lovelace and, given her colourful history, you may be wondering why not.  In fact, if I asked you to name another iconic female scientist from history, aside from Marie Curie and possibly Rosalind Franklin, I suspect you might struggle.

This seems extraordinary.  Iconic female figures have made significant contributions to science throughout history. Their stories are often far more interesting than their many celebrated and well known male counterparts, usually due to the adversity they had to overcome simply for being a woman.  If you doubt this, look up Emilie du Chatelet, Mary Somerville, Caroline Herschel, Mary Anning, Lise Meitner and Alice Ball or simply Google “iconic female scientists”.

(sourced from Wikimedia Commons)

Ada Lovelace Day

By the way, if you want to know more about Ada Lovelace, she has inspired a really excellent steampunk style graphic novel by Sydney Padua.  She has also inspired Ada Lovelace Day, celebrated every year since 2009 on the second Tuesday of October to recognise inspirational women in science, technology, maths and engineering.

I hope that this post inspires you to find out more about the contributions made by female scientists.  It’s time to re-write the history of science to include all of the star characters, both male and female.

6 Responses to “Hidden figures – time to acknowledge the rich history of women in science.”

  1. Richard Proudlove says:

    Hi Emma. Thanks for the comment. I had not heard of WISE. I just went to their website and they have a blog. Guess what, someone posted a blog piece there which mentions Ada Lovelace!!

  2. Emma Fazzino says:

    Great piece! I love that you’re bringing this to the forefront of our attention. Have you heard of the club WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) before?

  3. Richard Proudlove says:

    Hi. Thanks for your comment. Yes, you are right in noting that, sadly “misogynistic myopia” is still an ongoing issue/concern.

  4. Richard Proudlove says:

    Thanks Ellen. The lack of acknowledgement is saddening more than intriguing. Saddest of all are the collaborations where one (male) party is acknowledged and the other (female) party is not for their life’s work together (e.g. Lise Meitner).

  5. Ellen Rochelmeyer says:

    Thanks for sharing Ada Lovelace’s story with us. Too many female scientists lay forgotten in history due to their lack of acknowledgment from society. To share a passage from one of Phillip Pullman’s novels: “She regarded female Scholars with a proper Jordan disdain: there were such people but, poor things, they could never be taken more seriously than animals dressed up and acting a play.” It is intriguing to think just how much of our contemporary common knowledge and scientific theory stems from unacknowledged women.

  6. S says:

    One can only hope the day will come when gender is no longer a concern when it comes to scientific contribution.