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.