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

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

  1. Samuel Taylor Coleridge … also a philosopher of science largely responsible for having introduced Schelling’s Naturphilosophie into the English philosophical discourse

    I’ve heard a bit about this; there are some who claim that Naturphilosophie exerted a signficant influence on Michael Faraday, though I believe this is controversial.

    In any case, Ørsted was an adherent.

  2. briancleggauthor

    If you are going to be picky, shouldn’t that be Ada King, Countess Lovelace, rather than Ada Lovelace?

  3. Is this necessary? I mean what does it actually achieve? Perhaps a more interesting angle might have been to look at how history is being used in these different situations and how women’s historical position is problematic for that approach. The same happens with Caroline Herschel – in the context of a great men doing great things that they have long been associated with women do pose a problem because you need to go back and find a tangible, named achievement that this great men narrative values to attach to them. So inventions & discoveries like the term scientist, the computer are clung onto as a means of making these women important in this narrative, when what I think we need is a new narrative. That’s what I think anyway.

    • Baerista

      Insisting on truth and accuracy is an end unto itself.

    • I agree with you Emily that the history of science treatment of women in science is drastically in need of an overhaul but I still think that when widely read media write crap that laymen and -women then accept as gospel then historians of science have an obligation to point out that it’s crap.

      I try to write about women in the history of science on their own merits in the context of their times and not within a framework of some sort of great men narrative.

    • higgsbosoff

      I think it matters because in the end any easily debunked bullshit is a weak point ready to be exploited by whoever is debating you. You’re in an argument with some MRA asshole, you pull out these supposed “facts” about Lovelace, do you want him to debunk them with 5 minutes of Google and feel more entitled to rant about the “feminist propaganda” as a result? I mean, technically, overlooking truth for the sake of the “narrative” IS propaganda, so he’d be right. The case for just recognition of women in science (btw Lovelace was amazing and I have an enormous respect for her work) should stand on its own legs, without the need to prep it up with forced anecdotes.

  4. Isn’t Whewell’s irreverence a joy? Not only does he suggest that his friends who bet on horses should change to betting on the positions of Halley’s coment, but he then goes on to report the suggestion that suggest the German term for scientists shozuld be translated, and nature-pokers be used. Alas, this was “indignantly rejected”.I have my suspicions about who suggested it.

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  8. I became fascinated in the origin, and early use, of the word ‘scientist’ whilst researching for my dissertation many years back. It turns out that most most gentleman of science at this time (early 19th century) inherently distrusted all those who earned a living from science, for science was a noble pursuit to be practised for its own sake and not for financial gain. Sydney Ross (1962) put it: ‘the word “scientist” implied making a business of science … and debased their labours of love to a drudgery for profits and salary.’ My favourite contemporary quote was by gentleman of science Adam Sedgewick, who said of Whewell’s new word, ‘better die of this want than bestialise our tongue by such barbarisms!’ So there you have it. To be called a ‘scientist’ at this time was probably more of an insult than a compliment!

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  11. Isla

    Actually Ada Lovelace corrected many errors within her colleague’s notes. She worked like this for years informally. Babbage himself said she was unreasonably gifted. So yes, she only published one paper, but she was likely only allowed to publish one. She understood all of the math Babage did, but also the possibilities beyond a calculator. I don’t think that is nothing. She was also the first person to write an algorithm intended to be carried out by a machine, that is not nothing.

    • HistoChristo

      Actually, she did not understand all the math Babbage did. She new some basic calculus and a smattering of the new “symbolic algebra,” both of which she had been taught just the year before by Augustus DeMorgan (a famous logician but, more to the point, husband of Ada’s mother’s chief hanger-on Sophia Frend DeMorgan). Ada was so uncertain of her mathematical skills that she had Babbage do the computation of the Bernoulli numbers that appeared in her notes because she found them to be “a quagmire and botheration” (in the correspondence between them). She did not even select Bernoulli numbers as the example to be used. They appeared in a list of possible example he drew up a decade earlier. The translation itself was not her idea, but was commissioned by Babbage’s friend (and sub-editor of the journal in which it appeared), Charles Wheatstone. Why did they ask her? They didn’t control Dionysius Lardner, who had published on Babbage’s work before, and the original Menabrea article (which had also been written under Babbage’s close guidance) had not has the desired impact in England because it was in French. Why didn’t Babbage and Wheatstone translate it themselves? Because they were looking for the appearance of independent support in England for Babbage’s project, and Lovelace seemed independent (because her public notoriety came mainly from being Byron’s daughter, not from being Babbage’s friend).

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