Category Archives: Ladies of Science

Emmy the student and Emmy the communist!

Emmy Noether’s birthday on 23 March saw her honoured with a Google Doodle, which of course led to various people posting brief biographies of Erlangen’s most famous science personality or drawing attention to existing posts in the Internet.

Emmy Google Doodle

Almost all of these posts contain two significant errors concerning Emmy’s career that I would like to correct here. For those interested I have written earlier posts on Emmy’s family home in Erlangen and the problems she went through trying to get her habilitation, the German qualification required to be able to teach at university.

The first oft repeated error concerns Emmy’s education and I quote a typical example below:

Today she is celebrated for her contributions to abstract algebra and theoretical physics, but in 20th-century Bavaria, Noether had to fight for every bit of education and academic achievement. Women were not allowed to enrol at the University of Erlangen, so Noether had to petition each professor to attend classes.

As a teenager Emmy displayed neither an interest nor a special aptitude for mathematics but rather more for music and dance. She attended the Städtische Höhere Töchterschule (the town secondary girls’ school), now the Marie-Therese-Gymnasium, and in 1900 graduated as a teacher for English and French at the girls’ school in Ansbach. In 1903 she took her Abitur exam externally at the Königlichen Realgymnasium in Nürnberg. The Abitur is the diploma from German secondary school qualifying for university admission or matriculation. Previous to this she had been auditing some mathematics courses in Göttingen as a guest student with the personal permission of the professors whose courses she visited, hence the claim above. However she had become ill and had returned home to Erlangen. In 1903 the laws were changed in Bavaria allowing women to register at university for the first time. Emmy registered as a regular student at the University of Erlangen in 1903 and graduated with a PhD in mathematics in 1907, under the supervision of Paul Gordon, in invariant theory. She was only the second woman in Germany to obtain a PhD in mathematics. In 1908 she became a member of the Circolo Matematico di Palermo and in 1909 a member of the Deutschen Mathematiker-Vereinigung. In 1909 Hilbert and Klein invited her to come to the University of Göttingen, as a post-doc researcher. It was here in 1915 that Hilbert suggested that she should habilitate with the well know consequences.

Emmy remained in Göttingen until the Nazis came to power in 1933. She held guest professorships in Moscow in 1928/29 and in Frankfort am Main in 1930. She was awarded the Ackermann-Teubner Memorial Prize for her complete scientific work in 1932 and held the plenary lecture at the International Mathematical Congress in Zurich also in 1932. In 1933 when the Nazis came to power she was expelled from her teaching position in Göttingen and it is here that the second oft repeated error turns up.

On coming to power the Nazis introduced the so-called Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums, (The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service). This was a law introduced by the Nazis to remove all undesirables from state employment, this of course meant the Jews but also, socialists, communists and anybody else deemed undesirable by the Nazi Party. Like many of her colleges in the mathematics department at Göttingen Emmy was removed from her teaching position under this law. In fact the culling in the mathematics department was so extreme that it led to a famous, possibly apocryphal, exchange between Bernhard Rust (and not Hermann Göring, see comments) and David Hilbert.

Rust: “I hear you have some problems in the mathematics department at Göttingen Herr Professor”.

Hilbert: “No, there are no problems; there is no mathematics department in Göttingen”.

The Wikipedia article on the history of the University Göttingen gives the story as follows (in German)

Ein Jahr später erkundigte sich der Reichserziehungsminister Bernhard Rust anlässlich eines Banketts bei dem neben ihm platzierten Mathematiker David Hilbert ob das mathematische Institut in Göttingen durch die Entfernung der jüdischen, demokratischen und sozialistischen Mathematiker gelitten habe. Hilbert soll in seiner ostpreußischen Mundart (laut Abraham Fraenkel, Lebenskreise, 1967, S. 159) erwidert haben: „Jelitten? Dat hat nich jelitten, Herr Minister. Dat jibt es doch janich mehr.“

The source here is given as Abraham Fraenkel in his autobiography Lebenkreise published in 1967.

This translates as follows:

One year later [that is after the expulsions in 1933] the Imperial Education Minister Bernhard Rust, who was seated next to the mathematician David Hilbert at a banquet, inquired, whether the Mathematics Institute at Göttingen had suffered through the removal of the Jewish, democratic and socialist mathematicians. Hilbert is said to have replied in his East Prussian dialect” Suffered? It hasn’t suffered, Herr Minister. It doesn’t exist anymore”

It is usually claimed that Emmy lost her position because she was Jewish, a reasonable assumption but not true. Emmy lost her position, like many other in Göttingen, because the Nazis thought she was a communist. Like many European universities in the 1920s and 30s Göttingen was a hot bed of radical intellectual socialism. Emmy had been a member of a radical socialist party in the early twenties but changed later to the more moderate SPD, who were also banned by the Nazis. However it was her guest professorship in Moscow that proved her undoing. Because she reported positively on her year in Russia the Nazis considered her to be a communist and this was the reason for her expulsion from the university in 1933.

Initially Emmy, after her expulsion, actually applied for a position at the University of Moscow but the attempts by the Russian topologist Pavel Alexandrov to get her a position got bogged down in the Russian bureaucracy and so when, through the good offices of Hermann Weyl, she received the offer of a guest professorship in America at Bryn Mawr College she accepted. In America she taught at Bryn Mawr and the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton but tragically died of cancer of the uterus in 1935.


Filed under History of Mathematics, Ladies of Science

The Queen of Science – The woman who tamed Laplace.

In a footnote to my recent post on the mythologizing of Ibn al-Haytham I briefly noted the inadequacy of the terms Arabic science and Islamic science, pointing out that there were scholars included in these categories who were not Muslims and ones who were not Arabic. In the comments Renaissance Mathematicus friend, the blogger theofloinn, asked, Who were the non-muslim “muslim” scientists? And (aside from Persians) who were the non-Arab “arab” scientists? And then in a follow up comment wrote, I knew about Hunayn ibn Ishaq and the House of Wisdom, but I was not thinking of translation as “doing science.” From the standpoint of the historian of science this second comment is very interesting and reflects a common problem in the historiography of science. On the whole most people regard science as being that which scientists do and when describing its history they tend to concentrate on the big name scientists.

This attitude is a highly mistaken one that creates a falsified picture of scientific endeavour. Science is a collective enterprise in which the ‘scientists’ are only one part of a collective consisting of scientists, technicians, instrument designers and makers, and other supportive workers without whom the scientist could not carry out his or her work. This often includes such ignored people as the secretaries, or in earlier times amanuenses, who wrote up the scientific reports or life partners who, invisible in the background, often carried out much of the drudgery of scientific investigation. My favourite example being William Herschel’s sister and housekeeper, Caroline (a successful astronomer in her own right), who sieved the horse manure on which he bedded his self cast telescope mirrors to polish them.

Translators very definitely belong to the long list of so-called helpers without whom the scientific endeavour would grind to a halt. It was translators who made the Babylonian astronomy and astrology accessible to their Greek heirs thus making possible the work of Eudoxus, Hipparchus, Ptolemaeus and many others. It was translators who set the ball rolling for those Islamic, or if you prefer Arabic, scholars when they translated the treasures of Greek science into Arabic. It was again translators who kicked off the various scientific Renaissances in the twelfth and thirteenth-centuries and again in the fifteenth-century, thereby making the so-called European scientific revolution possible. All of these translators were also more or less scientists in their own right as without a working knowledge of the subject matter that they were translating they would not have been able to render the texts from one language into another. In fact there are many instances in the history of the transmission of scientific knowledge where an inadequate knowledge of the subject at hand led to an inaccurate or even false translation causing major problems for the scholars who tried to understand the texts in the new language. Translators have always been and continue to be an important part of the scientific endeavour.

The two most important works on celestial mechanics produced in Europe in the long eighteenth-century were Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica and Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace’s Mécanique céleste. The former was originally published in Latin, with an English translation being published shortly after the author’s death, and the latter in French. This meant that these works were only accessible to those who mastered the respective language. It is a fascinating quirk of history that the former was rendered into French and that latter into English in each case by a women; Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet translated Newton’s masterpiece into French and Mary Somerville translated Laplace’s pièce de résistance into English. I have blogged about Émilie de Châtelet before but who was Mary Somerville? (1)


Mary Somerville by Thomas Phillips

Mary Somerville by Thomas Phillips

She was born Mary Fairfax, the daughter of William Fairfax, a naval officer, and Mary Charters at Jedburgh in the Scottish boarders on 26 December 1780. Her parents very definitely didn’t believe in education for women and she spent her childhood wandering through the Scottish countryside developing a lifelong love of nature. At the age of ten, still semi-illiterate, she was sent to Miss Primrose’s boarding school at Musselburgh in Midlothian for one year; the only formal schooling she would ever receive. As a young lady she received lessons in dancing, music, painting and cookery. At the age of fifteen she came across a mathematical puzzle in a ladies magazine (mathematical recreation columns were quite common in ladies magazines in the 18th and 19th-centuries!) whilst visiting friends. Fascinated by the symbols that she didn’t understand, she was informed that it was algebra, a word that meant nothing to her. Later her painting teacher revealed that she could learn geometry from Euclid’s Elements whilst discussing the topic of perspective. With the assistance of her brother’s tutor, young ladies could not buy maths-books, she acquired a copy of the Euclid as well as one of Bonnycastle’s Algebra and began to teach herself mathematics in the secrecy of her bedroom. When her parents discovered this they were mortified her father saying to her mother, “Peg, we must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a strait jacket one of these days. There is X., who went raving mad about the longitude.” They forbid her studies, but she persisted rising before at dawn to study until breakfast time. Her mother eventually allowed her to take some lessons on the terrestrial and celestial globes with the village schoolmaster.

In 1804 she was married off to a distant cousin, Samuel Grieg, like her father a naval officer but in the Russian Navy. He, like her parents, disapproved of her mathematical studies and she seemed condemned to the life of wife and mother. She bore two sons in her first marriage, David who died in infancy and Woronzow, who would later write a biography of Ada Lovelace. One could say fortunately, for the young Mary, her husband died after only three years of marriage in 1807 leaving her well enough off that she could now devote herself to her studies, which she duly did. Under the tutorship of John Wallace, later professor of mathematics in Edinburgh, she started on a course of mathematical study, of mostly French books but covering a wide range of mathematical topic, even tacking Newton’s Principia, which she found very difficult. She was by now already twenty-eight years old. During the next years she became a fixture in the highest intellectual circles of Edinburgh.

In 1812 she married for a second time, another cousin, William Somerville and thus acquired the name under which she would become famous throughout Europe. Unlike her parents and Samuel Grieg, William vigorously encouraged and supported her scientific interests. In 1816 the family moved to London. Due to her Scottish connections Mary soon became a member of the London intellectual scene and was on friendly terms with such luminaries as Thomas Young, Charles Babbage, John Herschel and many, many others; all of whom treated Mary as an equal in their wide ranging scientific discussions. In 1817 the Somervilles went to Paris where Mary became acquainted with the cream of the French scientists, including Biot, Arago, Cuvier, Guy-Lussac, Laplace, Poisson and many more.

In 1824 William was appointed Physician to Chelsea Hospital where Mary began a series of scientific experiments on light and magnetism, which resulted in a first scientific paper published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1826. In 1836, a second piece of Mary’s original research was presented to the Académie des Sciences by Arago. The third and last of her own researches appeared in the Philosophical Transactions in 1845. However it was not as a researcher that Mary Somerville made her mark but as a translator and populariser.

In 1827 Henry Lord Brougham and Vaux requested Mary to translate Laplace’s Mécanique céleste into English for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. Initially hesitant she finally agreed but only on the condition that the project remained secret and it would only be published if judged fit for purpose, otherwise the manuscript should be burnt. She had met Laplace in 1817 and had maintained a scientific correspondence with him until his death in 1827. The translation took four years and was published as The Mechanism of the Heavens, with a dedication to Lord Brougham, in 1831. The manuscript had been refereed by John Herschel, Britain’s leading astronomer and a brilliant mathematician, who was thoroughly cognisant with the original, he found the translation much, much more than fit for the purpose. Laplace’s original text was written in a style that made it inaccessible for all but the best mathematicians, Mary Somerville did not just translate the text but made it accessible for all with a modicum of mathematics, simplifying and elucidating as she went. This wasn’t just a translation but a masterpiece. The text proved too vast for Brougham’s Library of Useful Knowledge but on the recommendation of Herschel, the publisher John Murray published the book at his own cost and risk promising the author two thirds of the profits. The book was a smash hit the first edition of 750 selling out almost instantly following glowing reviews by Herschel and others. In honour of the success the Royal Society commissioned a bust of Mrs Somerville to be placed in their Great Hall, she couldn’t of course become a member!

At the age of fifty-one Mary Somerville’s career as a science writer had started with a bang. Her Laplace translation was used as a textbook in English schools and universities for many years and went through many editions. Her elucidatory preface was extracted and published separately and also became a best seller. If she had never written another word she would still be hailed as a great translator and science writer but she didn’t stop here. Over the next forty years Mary Somerville wrote three major works of semi-popular science On the Connection of the Physical Sciences (1st ed. 1834), Physical Geography (1st ed. 1848), (she was now sixty-eight years old!) and at the age of seventy-nine, On Molecular and Microscopic Science (1st ed. 1859). The first two were major successes, which went through many editions each one extended, brought up to date, and improved. The third, which she later regretted having published, wasn’t as successful as her other books. Famously, in the history of science, William Whewell in his anonymous 1834 review of On the Connection of the Physical Sciences first used the term scientist, which he had coined a year earlier, in print but not, as is oft erroneously claimed, in reference to Mary Somerville.

Following the publication of On the Connection of the Physical Sciences Mary Somerville was awarded a state pension of £200 per annum, which was later raised to £300. Together with Caroline Herschel, Mary Somerville became the first female honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society just one of many memberships and honorary memberships of learned societies throughout Europe and America. Somerville College Oxford, founded seven years after her death, was also named in her honour. She died on 28 November 1872, at the age of ninety-one, the obituary which appeared in the Morning Post on 2 December said, “Whatever difficulty we might experience in the middle of the nineteenth century in choosing a king of science, there could be no question whatever as to the queen of science.” The Times of the same date, “spoke of the high regard in which her services to science were held both by men of science and by the nation”.

As this is my contribution to Ada Lovelace day celebrating the role of women in the history of science, medicine, engineering, mathematics and technology I will close by mentioning the role that Mary Somerville played in the life of Ada. A friend of Ada’s mother, the older women became a scientific mentor and occasional mathematics tutor to the young Miss Byron. As her various attempts to make something of herself in science or mathematics all came to nought Ada decided to take a leaf out of her mentor’s book and to turn to scientific translating. At the suggestion of Charles Wheatstone she chose to translate Luigi Menabrea’s essay on Babbage’s Analytical Engine, at Babbage’s suggestion elucidating the original text as her mentor had elucidated Laplace and the rest is, as they say, history. I personally would wish that the founders of Ada Lovelace Day had chosen Mary Somerville instead, as their galleon figure, as she contributed much, much more to the history of science than her feted protégée.

(1) What follows is largely a very condensed version of Elizabeth  C. Patterson’s excellent Somerville biography Mary Somerville, The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 4, 1969, pp. 311-339



Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of Physics, History of science, 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 mooted 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