As my contribution this year to Ada Lovelace day I am writing about a woman who wasnât just a scientist but who also wrote extensively about natural philosophy in the seventeenth century, Margaret …
On a day that honors one of the (female) pioneers of computer science, our second annual round-up of our work on women in technology.
As I discussed on this blog last year, I find myself somewhat conflicted about Ada Lovelace Day and similar projects that focus on highlighting women in the history of science. On the plus side, I am wholeheartedly supportive of the attempt to encourage young women to think about scientific careers and to appreciate the work of women in the past, when opportunities were even more circumscribed. I am also glad to see stories from the history of science getting wider attention.
However, I am also wary. In celebratory mode, there is a tendency to overplay the work that the women highlighted actually did. There is no better example of this than Lovelace herself, who is wrongly credited with writing the first computer programme. Likewise, just as with the heroic “great man” mode of history, focusing on individuals can hide the extent to which science is always a collaborative enterprise. Finally, although some women are rescued from the background shadows, other individuals and groups, equally deserving of attention, remain ignored.
It seems apposite on Ada Lovelace day to look at some female punchcard operators from the very first days of available electronic computation, working on one of the first “poetical science” projects in “Humanities Computing”. From 1959, an Italian Jesuit priest called Father Roberto Busa (November 13, 1913 – August 9, 2011) pioneered the use of computing for linguistic and literary analysis, teaming up with IBM to produce an index of the works of St Thomas Aquinas. Thomas Aquinas wrote some 9 million words of medieval Latin, and so Busa’s project to index his works via computational methods took over 30 years, being one of the earliest and most ambitious projects in the field which is now called Digital Humanities.
On Jane Coe, 17th century printer.
Professor Karen Spärck Jones (d. 2007) - significant contributions to natural language processing, machine translation, and search
Delia Derbyshire, electronic music pioneer, creator of the Dr Who theme tune. (A post from last year’s ALD, but too good to miss.)
Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997), Chinese-born American physicist