Category Archives: Ladies of Science

Was Madge really Mad or simply a woman?

As my contribution this year to Ada Lovelace day I am writing about a woman who wasn’t just a scientist but who also wrote extensively about natural philosophy in the seventeenth century, Margaret Cavendish née Lucas.

Margaret Lucas was born in Colchester in about 1623. (Regular readers of my ramblings will immediately recognise that I’m biased, as I was born down the road from Colchester myself and went to school there). Her family were rich landed gentry but not titled. She received the usual non-education of a gentlewoman of the period. In 1642 as the civil war was cranking into gear, her brother Charles would later be executed following the siege of Colchester, she went to live with her sister in Oxford and succeeded in becoming a maid of honour at the court of Queen Henrietta then resident in Oxford. In 1644 when the Queen withdrew to Paris Margaret accompanied her.

William Cavendish (1592 – 1676) a member of the very wealthy and influential Cavendish family was an aristocrat and courtier who worked his way up the greasy pole of privilege acquiring various titles and lands until he was finally appointed Duke of Newcastle. A gentleman of leisure he was a polymath, an excellent swordsman, equestrian and soldier given to the usual pursuits of the landed gentry but he was also poet, playwright and architect who was both a disciple and a patron of Ben Jonson as well as being patron to a whole host of poets, playwright, artists and musicians.  Both William and his younger brother Charles were devotees of natural philosophy and the mathematical sciences maintaining close contact, before the civil war, with most of the leading English mathematicians and mathematical practitioners of the period, including John Pell, William Oughtred and John Wallis.

Both William and Charles served with distinction in the royalist army during the civil war but were on the losing side at the battle of Marston Moor in 1644. Forced to flee England the Cavendish brothers joined the Queen’s court in Paris where William, who had lost his first wife, met Margaret fell in love with the much younger woman and married her in 1645 against the wishes of the Queen.

In Paris William and Charles maintained a philosophical salon whose participants included René Descartes, Marin Mersenne, Pierre Gassendi and the English philosophers Kenelm Digby and Thomas Hobbes, who had been private tutor to another branch of the Cavendish family. An unusual aspect of this august discussion circle was that Margaret was not only permitted to attend but also to participate as an equal, an almost unheard of thing for a gentlewoman in this period. In 1648 the Cavendish circus decamped to Holland setting up home in Reuben’s house in Antwerp where their circle of intellectual friends included Pell, now teaching in Holland, Descartes and Constantijn Huygens. In 1660 with the Restoration they could return to England and the life of the landed gentry.

William himself wrote plays and poetry but was outstripped by his young vivacious wife who poured out a series of volumes of poetry and plays in her own right and in her own name, a more than somewhat unusual activity for a female aristocrat. However Margaret pushed the boundaries even further. Having received an education in philosophy from some of the greatest minds in Europe she began to write and publish extensively on the philosophy of science. At first tending to support Hobbes’ materialism, in her more mature writings she rejected both the traditional Aristotelian philosophy as well as the mechanical philosophies of the moderns and developed her own version of vitalism. I’m not going to bore you with an analysis of her somewhat arcane ideas but her writings on the philosophy of science are not to be rejected out of hand. In 1667 she caused a major sensation by becoming the first, and before the 19th century, only women to attend a meeting of the Royal Society. A visit made possible more by her husband’s status and wealth than her own scientific merits. This visit is mentioned together with some rather intriguing details of her correspondence on chemistry with Constantijn Huygens in a recent BBC Radio 4 Point of View by Lisa Jardine.

Having briefly sketched the life of Margaret Cavendish I can now explain the title of this post. Although the habit seems to be dying out Margaret Cavendish was for a long time almost universally referred to, as Mad Madge and it was certainly not meant as a compliment. I know of at least two different explanations for this less than flattering sobriquet. One source has the following to say on the subject:

Margaret was viewed by her contemporaries as being rather eccentric. She was extravagent and flirtatious, accused of using speech full of ‘oaths and obscenity’, and was noted for her unusual sense of fashion. This reputation for eccentricity survives today, when Margaret is widely referred to as ‘Mad Madge’.

Now both of the Cavendish brother, Descartes and Digby were all professional soldiers and it would not surprise me if the language of their discussion, when the nights were long and the bottles almost empty, sometimes resembled that of the barrack room rather than the schools and that Margaret learnt to hold her own in this heady atmosphere. Now the above description could, with a little modification, equally be applied to Margaret’s near contemporary Edmond Halley but nobody refers to him as Loony Eddy!

The other explanation is that Margaret is so referred to because of her unladylike passion for science and its philosophy. Kenelm Digby her Paris companion, who also like Margaret ran a chemistry laboratory and at the same time as she was writing and publishing her tracts on vitalism Digby was publishing his on his strange amalgam of Aristotelian and Cartesian philosophies that enjoyed a certain vogue in the early years of the Royal society. Both philosophies are now out of style and appear to us rather strange but nobody refers to Digby as Krazy Kenelm!

I think Margaret Cavendish gets called Mad Madge for daring to compete in a man’s world. She gets denigrated not because of her outlandish behaviour or her passion for science but simply because she was a woman who had these attributes. I think we should no longer call her Mad Madge but respect and honour Margaret Cavendish as an intelligent and able woman who was a pioneering female philosopher of science at a time when this was an exclusively male occupation.


Filed under History of Mathematics, History of science, Ladies of Science

Mary Somerville was not “the first scientist” and Ada Lovelace did not inspire “the first modern computer”.

This is in no way a rant against promoting the role of women in the history of science something I was actively involved in long before there was an Internet. It is also in no way an attack on Mary Somerville of whom I have been a major fan for many years or on Ada Lovelace, even if I do find most modern comments on her role in the history of science highly inaccurate and grossly exaggerated. What this is, is an attempt to at least make a handful of people aware of totally false statements about these two Victorian ladies that have been propagated on the Internet in the last couple of days.

Today on twitter Maria Popova the author of the excellent Brainpickings Blog posted the following tweet.

This links to an article on The Reconstructionists: A yearlong celebration of remarkable women who have changed the way we see the world, which open with the following paragraph:

Not only did Scottish mathematician, science writer, and polymath Mary Fairfax Somerville (December 26, 1780—November 28, 1872) defy the era’s deep-seated bias against women in science, she was the very reason the word “scientist” was coined: When reviewing her seminal second book, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, which Somerville wrote at the age of 54, English polymath and Trinity College master William Whewell was so impressed that he thought it rendered the term “men of science” obsolete and warranted a new, more inclusive descriptor to honor Somerville’s contribution to the field.

I’m sorry to have to say this but the main claim of this paragraph is pure and utter balderdash!

At the 1833 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the expounder of poetic tales about albatross murdering mariners and the construction of pleasure domes in Xanadu, who was also a philosopher of science largely responsible for having introduced Schelling’s Naturphilosophie into the English philosophical discourse, protested strongly about the use of the term (natural) philosopher for men of science.  William Whewell, Cambridge polymath and himself both a man of science and a historian and philosopher of science, suggested using the term scientist, which he had coined parallel to the term artist.

Whewell did in fact first use his own new term in 1834 when writing his review of Mary Somerville’s On the Connection of the Physical Sciences, however he didn’t use the term to refer to the author, but to refer the “gentlemen”, allied to various disciplines, at the British Association for the Advancement of Science (see review page 59).

The second piece of modern myth making in in an article on the Guardian Life and Style bog under the rubric Women by Helen Czerski entitled, “The view that computers are technology but sewing isn’t is a sexist stitch-up”. Now on the whole I agree totally with the views expressed in the article and think it is part of a much wider problem of what people think of when they read the term technology. However the article contains the following claim:

Ada Lovelace, whose work in the 19th century inspired the first modern computer…

Of all of the misconceptions of Ada Lovelace’s contributions to the history of computing this has got to be one of the worst. Ada Lovelace published, anonymously, one single paper on the subject of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. This paper was a translation from the French of an account of a series of lecture on the Analytical Engine held by Babbage in Turin in 1840 written by a young Italian military engineer Captain Luigi Menabrea. To this translation Ada Lovelace appended a series of somewhat poetic annotation sketching the possible uses of the Analytical Engine. In doing so Lovelace was following the example of Mary Somerville, a highly respected mathematical translator and annotator, who was one of her mentors. (For a more detailed version of this story go here.) The computer she was describing had been conceived, designed and partially constructed by Babbage well before Lovelace became in anyway involved in the story. So to talk of her having “inspired the first modern computer” is complete and utter rubbish. To what extent Babbage’s Analytical Engine can even be called the first modern computer is a complex subject, which I have discussed to some extant here.


Filed under Ladies of Science, Myths of Science

Christmas Trilogy 2012 Part II: Charles and Ada: A tale of genius or of exploitation?

This year Ada Lovelace Day, a celebration of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fuelled by the Finding Ada website and twitter account took off big time. Now I have nothing against this celebration and have actively supported it on this blog for the last three years; writing about Emmy Noether in 2010, a quartet of lady astronomers in 2011 and the first female professor at a European university, Laura Brassi, in 2012. I have also posted on other women in the history of science on other occasions. This year I, by chance, also attended, but did not participate in, the edit-thron for STEM women on Wikipedia held at the Royal Society. As I have already said I have nothing against this celebration but as a historian of mathematics and computing each time I do so I have very major misgivings about the organisers choice of figurehead, Ada Lovelace. These qualms were strengthened this month on the tenth, Ada’s birthday, as an echo of Ada Lovelace Day set off a flurry of biographical posts throughout the Intertubes, some of them old and merely linked, others freshly written for the occasion. All of them however had one thing in common, they were not written from original or even well researched secondary sources but simply regurgitated older fundamentally flawed largely mythical short biographies. There is nothing new in what I’m going to say now, in fact I’ve blogged about it before as has one of The Guardian’s excellent lady historians of science Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt. Even the much-maligned Wikipedia gets it largely right in its Ada Lovelace article. All of the short biographies state clearly that Ada was a mathematician and “the first computer programmer”.  Both statements are wrong. So what is the truth?

Ada, the daughter of Annabelle Milbanke and George Byron, was motivated to learn mathematics as a child (unusually for a women in the nineteenth century) by her mathematics fan mother to try to prevent her growing up to be like her “mad, bad and dangerous to know” poetic father. A stultifying logical education rather than a stimulating poetic one! Ada had various maths tutors in her youth including the aging radical reformer William Frend, Augustus De Morgan’s father in law and her mother’s old childhood tutor. None of these really managed to instil any real enthusiasm or ability for mathematics in the young Ada. Later as a young lady she became acquainted with both Mary Somerville, the mathematical translator and science populariser and Charles Babbage and became fascinated with the mathematical sciences. She received some informal tuition from Somerville who became her mentor and role model. Later determined to finally get to grips with the discipline she succeeded in persuading De Morgan, she was acquainted through his wife Sophia, Frend’s daughter, to become her maths tutor in an informal correspondence course. The surviving letters of their mathematical correspondence clearly show that although Ada is obviously the possessor of a bright and inquisitive mind she never really grasped several important fundamental mathematical concepts and her acquisition of the secrets of mathematics never progressed beyond that of a failed first year undergraduate. To call Ada a mathematician is a perversion by any stretch of the imagination. As Dorothy Stein, who has analysed the De Morgan – Ada mathematical correspondence in detail, puts it in her excellent biography AdaA Life and a Legacy (1985):

At twenty-eight, […] and after ten years of intermittent but sometimes intensive study, Ada was still a promising “young beginner”.

Having failed to master mathematics Ada now turned her attention to the occupation of Mary Somerville, her mentor, scientific translating. Quoting Stein again:

Translation was a good way to begin, whether or not original contributions were to follow. Mary Somerville, De Morgan and Babbage himself had all begun their published careers as translators. There was no reason why she could not proceed on a course at least as successful and rewarding as those of Mary Somerville and her mother’s friends Harriet Martineau and Anna Jameson.

In 1840 Babbage held a series of public lectures before an audience of eminent Italian philosophers and men of science on his Analytical Engine in Turin. This was a publicity exercise and Babbage’s plan was that the most eminent attendee, Baron Plana, should publish an account of the lectures creating much needed publicity for his cash strapped project. Plana declined and Babbage had to content himself with an account written in French by the young unknown military engineer, Captain Luigi Menabrea (who in a strange twist of fate would later become prime minister of Italy).  It was this document, which Ada, a long-time fan of Babbage’s calculating machines, chose at the suggestion of Charles Wheatstone, Babbage’s friend, as her first (and last) scientific translation project. (As a historian of science and a big fan of polymaths I find it fascinating that the physicist Wheatstone universally known by school kids studying physics for his Wheatstone Bridge (which he didn’t invent) was the inventor of the English Concertina.)

When he became aware, after the event, of Ada’s translation Babbage, never one to miss a trick, realised he had a great opportunity for a publicity stunt and suggested that Ada should garnish her work, in the manner of Somerville’s Laplace translation, with her own notes on the Analytical Engine; a suggestion that the flattered young lady grasped with alacrity. It is obvious from the extensive correspondence that Babbage controlled and supervised every single point and comma of the infamous Lovelace notes and it difficult to say how much of them is original Ada and how much Babbage expressed through a mouthpiece. Even some of the more interesting speculative ideas contained in the notes can be shown to be paraphrases of ideas first muted in earlier Babbage publications such as his Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (1832) and his Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (1837).

On the question of who the first computer programmer was, there is no confusion what so ever and it was not Ada Lovelace. The Menabrea Memoir that Ada had translated already contained examples of programmes for the Analytical Engine that Babbage had used to illustrate his Turin lectures and had actually developed several years before. The notes contain further examples from the same source that Babbage supplied to the authoress. The only new programme example developed for the notes was the one to determine the so-called Bernoulli numbers. Quite who contributed what to this programme is open to dispute. In his autobiography, written several years after Ada’s death, Babbage claims that Ada suggested the programme, which he then wrote, although noting that she had spotted a serious error in the original. The correspondence suggests that Ada was much more actively involved in the development of the programme and should perhaps be given more credit than Babbage allowed her. Whatever the truth of the matter Ada Lovelace was neither a mathematician nor the first computer programmer.

Ada was not some sort of mathematical genius who conceived the first computer programme but was rather an intelligent but rather confused young lady who was exploited by Charles Babbage to gain publicity for his out of control megalomaniac computer project. However Ada’s annotated translation was elegantly written, as she, despite her mother’s best efforts, seems to have inherited some of her father’s poetic genius. It would in no way be amiss to describe Ada as a female science populariser or science communicator however if one were to choose one of these as a role model for women in STEM careers then Mary Somerville would be a much more obvious choice as her annotated Laplace translation was much more significant and immensely more influential than Ada’s memoir.

In general I find it sad that the organisers of Ada Lovelace Day didn’t choose one of the many real women mathematician and scientists out of history as their figurehead rather than a woman who was neither.



Filed under History of Computing, Ladies of Science

Women at The Renaissance Mathematicus

As today is Ada Lovelace Day dedicated to raising awareness of women in science, technology, engineering and medicine (the mathematicians got left out again!) I thought I would make a list of earlier posts here at The Renaissance Mathematicus for new readers who might not have discovered them yet.

A Lady of Science: Agnes Mary Clarke a historian of astronomy

Season of the Witch: Maria Gaetana Agnesi 

Emmy and the Habilitation: Emmy Noether once

The House where Emmy Lived: Emmy Noether twice

A Feminist Newtonian: Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet

Daughters of Urania: Four Lady Astronomers from the Early Modern Period


Filed under Ladies of Science