Subscribe to the OSS Weekly Newsletter!

Register for the OSS 25th Anniversary Event

A Feminine Touch

Women have contributed immeasurably to science, but many do not realize that the first person to be called a “scientist” was in fact a woman.

Women have played a larger role in the history of science than is generally recognized. Although Marie Curie’s discovery of radium, Lise Meitner’s work on nuclear fission, Dorothy Hodgkin’s contributions to X-ray crystallography, Rosalind Franklin’s aid in unraveling the structure of DNA, Barbara McClintock’s experiments in genetics, and Rachel Carson’s environmentalism have been widely acknowledged, few realize that the very first “scientist” was a woman.

There were no “scientists” as such until 1833 when English philosopher William Whewell coined the term to describe Scottish mathematician and astronomer Mary Somerville in his review of her paper “On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences” published in the “Quarterly Review.” Not only did Somerville make major contributions to the study of mathematics, light, magnetism, and astronomy, she was a great popularizer of science. Her book, “Molecular and Microscopic Science’ is a classic. Full of illustrations, it presented the latest ideas about atoms and molecules and explored plant and animal life. Mary Somerville’s newspaper obituary in 1872 ended with "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 queen made another glittering contribution to science. As tutor to young Ada Byron, she instilled a love for mathematics that would result in Ada becoming, at least in some historians’ eyes, the world’s first computer programmer. And that was way before computers were invented!

Born in 1815, Ada was the daughter of famed English poet Lord Byron and Lady Byron. The couple separated soon after the birth of their daughter, with Lady Byron accusing her husband of being mentally unstable. Ada would have no relationship with her father and was brought up by her mother who hoped to prevent the “Byron insanity” from taking root by emphasizing science and rational thinking. The young girl took to science with a passion. At the age of twelve, she developed a fascination with flying, studying the anatomy of birds and even investigated materials such as feathers, silk, and paper that could serve as wings. She penned “Flyology,” a monograph in which she described her findings and even raised the possibility of using some sort of steam engine to take to the air. “Flyology” didn’t fly very far with her mother who thought it to be too fanciful and wanted young Ada’s feet to be planted firmly on scientific grounds. Mary Somerville, she believed, was just the person to guide her daughter on the right path. That turned out to be an auspicious choice, as Mary not only cultivated Ada’s interest in science, she also introduced her to a number of “natural philosophers” such as Charles Wheatstone, Michael Faraday, and most significantly, the mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage, the first person to conceptualize a digital computer.

Ada was only seventeen when she met Babbage and was immediately captivated by a prototype of the “Difference Machine” he was working on. When completed, the device, would supposedly perform complex calculations. Intrigued, Ada began a voluminous correspondence with the inventor and was kept abreast of developments. Babbage was very impressed by the young lady and offered her advice to “Forget this world and all its troubles and if possible its multitudinous Charlatans” and concentrate on mathematics. Obviously Babbage was aware of the antics of the spiritualists, nonsensical nostrums such as “Morison’s Pills” that claimed to cure all diseases, and quack devices that were supposed to draw illness out of the body, with “Perkins Tractors” being an example.

Even though Babbage’s original machine was never fully completed, he began to work on plans for a much more sophisticated “Analytical Engine,” with thousands of cogs, springs, and levers. He described the workings to Italian mathematician Luigi Federico Menabrea who then agreed to write a paper on the subject. Ada Byron, who by this time had become “Countess of Lovelace” through marriage, was asked to translate the paper and elaborate on the concept. She did this admirably, adding notes that were more than twice as long as the original document.

It was with these notes that she really made her mark. Going far beyond just translation, the Countess explained that the machine was capable of doing more than just calculations and how through a series of punch cards could be instructed to carry out a sequence of steps. These steps she called the “science of operations,” now regarded as the first-ever description of a computer program. Showing great insight, Ada concluded that “a new, a vast, and a powerful language is developed for the future use of analysis, in which to wield its truths so that these may become of more speedy and accurate practical application for the purposes of mankind than the means hitherto in our possession have rendered possible.” Anticipating future developments, she even proposed the possibility of computer-generated music.

Lovelace’s scientific interests were not limited to Babbage’s machines. She was keenly interested in the functioning of the brain largely due to her mother’s obsession with “potential madness” stemming from the Byron side of the family. She wondered about how nerves functioned and even consulted an electrical engineer to get some insight into thought processes she believed were possibly controlled by electrical activity in the brain. Phrenology, the study of the shape of the skull to determine psychological attributes, and mesmerism, the imposition of an operator’s will on a subject, also intrigued her.

Some computer historians have disputed Ada Byron’s contributions, even suggesting that others had written the notes. This, though, is generally thought to be a distasteful attempt to minimize women’s involvement in computing. Certainly, the U.S. Department of Defense recognized her contributions by naming a program it developed to combine different programming languages, “Ada.”

Charles Babbage never managed to build a fully working model of any of his mechanical computing devices, but in 1991, technicians at the London Science Museum, using Babbage’s plans, as well as materials and techniques available in the early 19th century, managed to build a working model that is now on display. It is looked upon as a holy item by anyone who has delved into the history of computing.

Today, women play a major role in science as witnessed by Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna being recognized for their development of CRISPR technology with the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and biochemist Katalin Kariko being touted as a future recipient for her messenger RNA research, a key to COVID vaccines. These women, and many others, have followed admirably in the footsteps of Mary Somerville, the “Queen of Science” and her “Princess,” Ada Byron.

Labeled by Charles Babbage as his “Enchantress of Numbers,” Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, died in 1852 at the young age of 37 from uterine cancer. A decade earlier she had written that “imagination is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of science.” A fitting epitaph for a scientist whose imagination envisioned the computer age.


Leave a comment!

Back to top