Biography, Event, Women's History

Women’s History Month: Ada Lovelace Day.

Augusta Ada King, Countess Lovelace (1815-1852) wrote the world’s first computer programme for the Analytical Engine (an early computer), invented by Charles Babbage. She had been taught mathematics by her mother, Annabella Byron, and met Babbage in 1833. When translating a memoir by Luigi Menabrea on Babbage’s engine, she included a method for using the machine to calculate Bernoulli numbers- the world’s first computer programme. In her honour, Ada Lovelace Day celebrates the achievements of women, past and present, in science and technology.

Mary Fairfax Somerville (1780-1872) was one such woman. Born into an upper-middle-class Scottish family, she studied mathematics and astronomy, writing a number of popular mathematical works. In an era where women’s involvement in mathematic and science was unusual, she translated a number of complex foreign mathematical works into common language for a general reader to popular acclaim. Mary invented the commonly used variables for algebraic math. Her contribution to the field of mathematics was significant enough to gain her recognition with the male-dominated field. In 1835, with Caroline Herschel, she became one of the first female members of the Royal Astronomical Society. Mary was also awarded the Victoria medal by the Royal Geographical Society in 1869 and Somerville College, Oxford is named after her.

Born Mary Fairfax, her interest in geometry, algebra and the classics began in childhood, but was not encouraged by her parents, or her first husband, Samuel Greig, whom she married in 1804, and with whom she had two sons. As a child she was allowed to run wild like a ‘savage’, when her father took her education in hand, making her read a chapter of the ‘Spectator’ aloud every morning, and as a result, she wrote in old age ‘I have never since opened that book’. She was sent to boarding school, where she recounts having a steel rod placed down her back to improve her posture, but left at eleven barely able to write. At home she was put to domestic duties, but was an avid reader- as her aunt complained to her mother “I wonder you let Mary waste her time in reading, she never shews (sews) more than if she were a man.” In response, her mother sent her to the village school to learn needlework.

Mary, frustrated at these restrictions, found Hester Chapone’s (a promoter of female education) Letters to Women, and followed her recommended course of education. At 13, she was sent to writing school and ‘learned a good hand’- at the same time she learned arithmetic. She taught herself Latin as she was bored as a teenager and continued to read avidly. She discovered algebra in a monthly magazine and discovered astronomy trying to find books about algebra! She eventually got information on algebra from her brother’s tutor, who bought her some books, but riled her family reading late into the night (her day was devoted to domestic chores) until they took away her candles. As her father commented to her mother: ‘Peg, we must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a strait jacket one of these days.’

As Mary’s daughter commented in her biography, her education in these years came ‘at the cost of so hard a struggle’. Her first husband Greig died in 1807, leaving her independent and with an income that enabled her to pursue her scientific interests. In this pursuit, she was supported by her uncle, who recognised her talent, and in 1812 Mary married his son, William Somerville, an army doctor. (Mary had also been wet-nursed by William’s mother when she was born, as her mother was seriously ill.) This was a happier match, although many expected that it would put an end to her study. William’s sister wrote to her after their engagement that she: “hoped I would give up my foolish manner of life and studies, and make a respectable and useful wife to her brother.” The couple moved to London where she became a significant part of London intellectual life. Mary’s daughter Martha recollected of this period:

It would be almost incredible were I to describe how much my mother contrived to do in the course of the day. When my sister and I were small children, although busily engaged in writing for the press, she used to teach us for three hours every morning, besides managing her house carefully, reading the newspapers (for she always was a keen, and, I must add, a liberal politician), and the most important new books on all subjects, grave and gay. In addition to all this, she freely visited and received her friends. She was, indeed, very fond of society, and did not look for transcendent talent in those with whom she associated, although no one appreciated it more when she found it. Gay and cheerful company was a pleasant relaxation after a hard day’s work. My mother never introduced scientific or learned subjects into general conversation. When they were brought forward by others, she talked simply and naturally about them, without the slightest pretension to superior knowledge. Finally, to complete the list of her accomplishments, I must add that she was a remarkably neat and skilful needlewoman. We still possess some elaborate specimens of her embroidery and lace-work.

In many respects, the remainder of Mary’s life was like that of many elite British women. Her circle of friends included numerous starlets of the era, including Sir Walter Scott and Maria Edgeworth. She attended parties and the theatre; she travelled around Europe, educated her children and managed a large household. Writing correspondence to numerous friends was also a typical experience and perhaps Mary was only unusual in that her friends were often men of science and her topic of discussion mathematics. Throughout her memoirs, the extent to which Mary continued to perform all the expected duties of a wife and mother is striking and yet she produced remarkable mathematical texts. The constant tension throughout her long life between her expected role as a woman and her pursuit of knowledge is clear in her autobiography, and perhaps best put by her daughter Martha in the introduction to her memoir: ‘the life of a woman entirely devoted to her family duties and to scientific pursuits affords little scope for a biography’.

Further reading

Mary Fairfax Greig Somerville, Personal Recollections, from Early Life to Old Age, of Mary Somerville: With Selections from her Correspondence. Martha Somerville, ed., (John Murray, London, England, 1873).

Dr Katie Barclay found Mary Somerville’s Personal Recollections extremely readable and amusing. She recommends it for anybody with an interest in the upbringing and domestic life of early-Victorian women.

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