The Great Arctic Explorer

Question: Who was the first person to cross Greenland on skis?
Answer: Fridtjof Nansen

Who?

Norwegian-born Fridtjof Wedel-Jarlsberg Nansen was a polymath and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who led the first crossing of Greenland in 1888. Although he gained fame in his home country for achieving the feat, Nansen also had a reputation in the fields of science, diplomacy and humanitarianism. Yet today, Nansen is fairly unknown, and his achievements no longer celebrated.

Nansen was born in Store Frøen, near Norway’s capital city, Christiania (now Oslo), on 10th October 1861. He was the second child of lawyer Baldur Fridtjof Nansen and Adelaide Johanne Thekla Isidore Bølling Wedel-Jarlsberg, although his older sibling died in infancy. Despite living in Norway, his father’s family originated in Denmark, where his ancestor Hans Nansen (1598-1667) was a burgomaster and had close dealings with the Danish royal family.

Nansen in 1865 (age 4)

Store Frøen, despite being near the capital city, was a rural area and Nansen spent much of his early life swimming in the summer and skiing in the winter. He enjoyed exploring the forests where he pretended to be the castaway Robinson Crusoe from the novel by Daniel Defoe (1660-1731). Through these activities, Nansen became self-reliant, as well as a proficient skier and ice skater. Sadly, at the age of 15, Nansen had to leave his idyllic countryside for the city following the death of his mother. Fortunately, he continued participating in sports at school and broke the world one-mile skating record at 18.

The following year, Nansen took “…the first fatal step that led me astray from the quiet life of science.” The zoology department at the university proposed a five-month voyage aboard the seal-hunting boat Viking to study Arctic animals. Nansen jumped at the chance to travel and spent the trip searching for seals in Greenland and Spitsbergen, Norway. Before returning home, Viking became trapped in the ice near the unexplored territories of Greenland. Whilst he could not go ashore, Nansen envisaged a potential exploration journey across the Greenland icecap.

On returning to Norway, Nansen left university and started working as a curator in the zoological department of the University Museum of Bergen. He worked there for six years, except during 1886 when Nansen spent a 6-month sabbatical touring Europe. During this trip, Nansen met Gerhard Armauer Hansen (1841-1912), the physician who discovered a leprosy-causing bacteria. This meeting encouraged Nansen to continue the research he had recently begun on the neuroanatomy of marine creatures. Nansen published a paper of his findings at the end of his sabbatical and, the following year, he completed his doctoral thesis, The Structure and Combination of Histological Elements of the Central Nervous System.

While working on his thesis, two men attempted to cross the Greenland icecap: Finland-Swedish aristocrat Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld (1832-1901) in 1883 and American explorer Robert Peary (1856-1920) in 1886. Both set out from the western coast and traversed approximately 100 miles before turning back. Nansen, who had planned to return to Greenland since his university trip, analysed these previous attempts. He believed he could do better by starting the trek on the opposite side of the land. There were a few settlements on the west coast, and Nansen thought it safer to travel towards them rather than away from them into the unknown.

Unlike the previous explorers who brought a large team and heavy equipment with them, Nansen planned his expedition for a small party of six and purchased lightweight sledges to carry their belongings. The team needed suitable clothing, sleeping bags and cooking facilities, many of which were hand made to suit the Arctic climate. Norwegian critics expressed negative views about Nansen’s plans and claimed he only had a one in ten chance of surviving the trip. The Norwegian government refused to support Nansen financially, but Danish explorer, Augustin Gamél (1839-1904), came to his rescue with a considerable donation.

Ravna, Sverdrup, Nansen, Kristiansen, Dietrichson, Balto

As for his team, Nansen needed experienced skiers and began advertising in newspapers. The first to respond was Oluf Christian Dietrichson (1856-1942), a military officer skilled in plotting maps and determining distances. Soon after, Otto Sverdrup (1854-1930), a proficient skier and sailor, was recruited as the ship commander. No one else came forward, but Sverdrup recommended his friend, Kristian Kristiansen (1865-1943), a cross-country skier.

Nansen still needed another two recruits and consulted Nordenskiöld, one of the previous explorers to attempt the crossing, about who he should ask. Nordenskiöld suggested contacting the Sami people in Lapland, Finland because they were generally reliable skiers and familiar with frozen landscapes. After sending a telegraph to the country, Nansen found two suitable candidates, Samuel Balto (1861-1921) and Ole Nilsen Ravna (1841-1906). Finally, Nansen’s team was assembled.

Postcard featuring of the members of Nansen’s Trans-Greenland Expedition

Nansen initially considered using dogs or reindeer to pull the sledges but rejected the idea because neither he nor his team had used animals before. By redesigning the Norwegian skikjaelke (low hand sledge), Nansen made several sledges from ash wood, which is both lightweight and strong. The six explorers boarded a boat with their sledges, skis, reindeer-skin sleeping bags, tents, woollen clothing, cooking stove, pemmican (dried meat), biscuits, tea and coffee, and sailed to Edinburgh in Scotland. They then boarded a Danish mail boat to Iceland, where they awaited their ship to carry them to Greenland.

On 3rd June 1888, the Norwegian whaling vessel Jason picked up the team and their equipment from the Icelandic port of Ísafjörður. After a week of sailing, they finally spotted Greenland in the distance, but the number of icebergs made it impossible for the Jason to sail to the coast. Using several small boats, the men set out to traverse the remaining 12 miles. Unfortunately, severe weather conditions made it difficult to navigate, and they spent more time sitting out storms on icebergs rather than sailing. After two weeks of battling the waves, Nansen and his team eventually reached Greenland on 29th July, having travelled approximately 240 miles, 20 times further than intended. Too far south to begin their expedition, Nansen ordered his men to rest then return to the boats. Over the following 12 days, they fought their way north up the coastline, stopping to rest at an Eskimo encampment along the way. They eventually reached their intended destination, Umivik, on 10th August.

After resting for a few days and making their final preparations, Nansen and his team set off in a north-westerly direction on 15th August. They aimed to traverse 370 miles of frozen land, eventually reaching the town of Christianhaab on the other side of the island.

“…we advanced rather rapidly for two days; then we were stopped by a storm from the north, with heavy rain, and we had to stay in our tent lying down in our sleeping-bags for three days, while the ice melted rapidly under us, and the rain poured down above.”

The last ship was due to leave Christianhaab by mid-October, and Nansen feared they would not make it in time. Crevasses made skiing dangerous, and progress was slow. Several snowstorms also delayed the teams and made pulling the sledges difficult. Eventually, Nansen proposed taking a shorter route to the capital Godthaab, now known as Nuuk, on the western coast. The team readily agreed to the new plan, which shortened their journey by 93 miles.

Nansen was the first explorer to bring a camera on an expedition. He managed to take about 150 photographs, which documented their journey across Greenland. These images reveal the size of the sledges the men dragged along with them and the types of clothing they wore. They harnessed themselves to the front of the sledges and allowed the wind to help push them in the right direction. Going uphill was always difficult, but downhill was just as dangerous. They had to be careful they were not mown down by the falling sledges.

Despite the snowy weather, the men were blinded by the sun, which reflected off the white ground. Nansen devised some snow goggles with a narrow slit for each eye. Whilst this prevented direct sunlight and reflections from obscuring their sight, it stopped the men from seeing their feet. When wearing the goggles, the men needed to be extra careful to avoid crevices and uneven ground.

The men faced many trials during the journey, including snowstorms that buried them inside their tents. Fortunately, on 11th September, they reached the highest part of their journey, approximately 8,921 ft above sea level. From here on, the route was downhill, and the team were able to put their skiing skills to good use. They still needed to cope with freezing temperatures, which reached as low as −45 °C, but the quicker pace helped keep them warm, and they enjoyed skiing while the northern lights shone overhead. This leg of the trip was by no means less dangerous. They still had crevices to navigate and fresh snowfalls to dig through, but their spirits rose as they neared their destination.

On 26th September, Nansen and his team reached the Ameralik fjord, 50 miles away from Godthaab. The men rejoiced at seeing water again, but they looked warily at the mountains separating themselves from the capital. Nansen decided the remaining journey would be easier by sea, alongside the edge of the fjord. Using the sledges, the men built a boat, using a tent as sails. Unfortunately, it could only carry two people, so Nansen and Sverdrup left the others sheltering in the remaining tents and set off on 29th September, navigating around ice flows and other obstructions. Finally, on 3rd October, the two men reached Godthaab, thus ending their 49-day journey across the land.

Nansen and Sverdrup were warmly welcomed by the Danish town representative who invited them into his home. They were overjoyed to wash off the two months worth of black grease and dirt from their bodies whilst some of the natives set off to rescue the remaining four explorers. Dietrichson, Kristiansen, Balto and Ravna finally reached the city on 12th October. “The expedition was finished, and Greenland was crossed for the first time.” Unfortunately, they were still 240 miles away from their original destination and had no way of making it to the final ship home. A skilled kayaker managed to send news of their success to the ship before it embarked, along with letters from the men to their families and friends. With no more ships due until the spring, the team spent the next seven months living with the Inuits. Eventually, on 15th April 1889, the Danish ship, Hvidbjørnen arrived to take them to Copenhagen. “It was not without sorrow that we left this place and these people, among whom we had enjoyed ourselves so well.”

Nansen reached Copenhagen on 21st May 1889, where crowds greeted him and his companions as heroes. News of their landing spread quickly, and by the time they reached Christiania a week later, almost forty thousand people lined the streets. This was approximately one-third of the city’s population. The university offered Nansen the position of curator of the Royal Frederick University’s zoology collection, which he accepted, but spent the majority of his working hours writing up an account of his expedition. In the summer, the Royal Geographical Society invited Nansen to London, where he met the future King Edward VII (1841-1910). The society awarded him with the Founders Medal “for having been first to cross the inland ice of Greenland … as well as for his qualities as a scientific geographer”.

Fridtjof Nansen and Eva Nansen in autumn 1889

On 11th August 1889, Nansen announced his engagement to Eva Sars (1858-1907), a mezzo-soprano singer and pioneer of women’s skiing. They married the following month, on 6th September. Eva, like her husband, was a competent skier and became the first woman to cross the Hardangervidda mountain plateau in Norway on skis in 1892. She also campaigned for the right for women to participate in winter sports on equal terms with men.

Nansen had not been home for long before he started planning his next expedition, this time to the North Pole. He presented his ideas to the Norwegian Geographical Society in 1890, arguing that recent failed attempts were due to starting the trips from the west rather than the east. His proposition received similar reactions to his plans for crossing Greenland. Many members of the society were involved in the search for the missing Franklin expedition and viewed the potential trip as “an illogical scheme of self-destruction”. Nonetheless, Nansen’s fame worked in his favour, and he secured a grant from the Norwegian parliament.

For the journey, Nansen needed a suitable ship to navigate the icy waters. He commissioned the Norwegian naval shipbuilder Colin Archer (1832-1921) to construct a fast and manoeuvrable vessel, which he christened Fram, the Norwegian word for “forward”. Nansen advertised for people to join his expedition team and received over 1000 applications. From these, he selected a party of twelve, including Otto Sverdrup, who Nansen appointed as second-in-command.

Thousands lined the harbour to watch the Fram launch on 24th June 1893. The plan was to sail the ship as close to the North Pole as possible, after which they would complete the rest of the journey with dog sledges. They stopped for some time on the Norwegian island of Vardøya, which they eventually left on 21st July. Unfortunately, fog and ice made sailing difficult, and occasionally they came to a complete standstill. It was not until 10th September that they passed the most northerly point of the Eurasian continent, Cape Chelyuskin.

Despite their determination, the journey became tediously slow. The Fram began to drift in the wrong direction, and it took four months to turn the ship back on course. By 22nd March 1894, Nansen had predicted it would take the ship five years to reach the North Pole. The Fram barely travelled more than a kilometre per day, so Nansen felt compelled to devise a new plan. Using the dogs to help pull the sledges, Nansen suggested travelling over the icy sections on foot and use kayaks to navigate the stretches of water. Over the next few months, the men practised dog-driving on the patches of ice they passed while the ship made her painstakingly slow journey through the icy water. By November, Nansen was sure of his plans, and the crew spent the remaining winter months building kayaks and preparing clothing and equipment. Only Nansen and dog-driving expert Hjalmar Johansen (1867-1913) planned to travel overland. The rest of the team were to stay on board until the ship broke through the ice into the North Atlantic Sea.

Preparations for Nansen and Johansen’s polar trek, 14 March 1895

Nansen and Johansen began their journey on 14th March 1895. They had a 410-mile trip ahead of them, which Nansen predicted would take 50 days. Unfortunately, uneven surfaces made progress slow, and Nansen considered turning back. On 4th April, they decided to turn south and travel to Franz Josef Land, a Russian archipelago, instead of the pole. Progress was still slow, but they felt safer travelling towards civilisation rather than into the unknown.

After several stops and starts to repair equipment, they reached the edge of the pack ice on 6th August. By then, all their dogs had died, either from injury or necessity (i.e. food). “At last the marvel has come to pass—land, land, and after we had almost given up our belief in it!” To reach the distant land, Nansen and Johansen needed to travel over water in their kayaks. As they approached, Nansen identified it as Cape Felder on the western edge of Franz Josef Land, but they were still many miles off. The weather gradually turned colder, and Nansen decided to make camp on an uninhabited, small island for the rest of the winter. They erected a small hut from stones and moss, where they lived on bear, walrus and seal meat for the following eight months. Finally, the weather conditions began to improve, and they resumed their journey on 19th May 1896.

Staged photo of the Nansen–Jackson meeting near Cape Flora, 17 June 1896

The two men had to stop again on 17th June after being attacked by a walrus, an event that turned out to be serendipitous. They hauled their kayaks onto an island and were shocked to hear voices. They were surprised to come across British explorer Frederick Jackson (1860-1938), the leader of an expedition to Franz Josef Land, who revealed Nansen and Johansen were reported lost, presumed dead.

After taking a few days to recuperate at Jackson’s camp on the nearby island of Cape Flora, Nansen and Johansen boarded Jackson’s supply ship Windward and sailed to Vardøya. They hoped to hear about the safe return of the Fram but there was no news. Crestfallen, they began to make their way south, eventually reaching Hammerfest, the most northerly town on the Norwegian mainland on 18th August. Whilst they were there, they finally heard some news about the Fram. She was sighted heading towards Tromsø in north Norway, having failed to reach the pole. Nansen and Johansen immediately set out to reunite with their crew.

Despite failing to reach the North Pole, Nansen and his men were hailed as heroes at every port they stopped at on their homeward journey to Christiania. When they arrived in the capital, the harbour was packed with the largest crowd they had ever seen, and they were greeted by King Oscar II (1829-1907), who invited the men and their families to stay at the palace for several days as special guests. Although they had not achieved what they set out to do, the Fram expedition was deemed a success. No one had died during the journey, and Nansen had made “almost as great an advance as has been accomplished by all other voyages in the nineteenth century put together.” (Edward Whymper, 1840-1911)

During the months after his return, Nansen wrote 300,000 words about his journey, which was translated into English and published as Farthest North in January 1897. After this, he started accepted a professorship in zoology at the Royal Frederick University and became the director of the International Laboratory for North Sea Research. He also helped to found the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea and his recently published book helped some Italian explorers reach the North Pole.

Fridtjof Nansen Institute at Polhøgda

Before Nansen set out on the Fram expedition, his eldest daughter Liv was born. In the years after his return, Nansen and his wife had three more children, Kåre (1897), Irmelin (1900) and Odd (1901-73). To accommodate his growing family, Nansen used the profits from his expedition to buy a plot of land on the outskirts of the capital and designed a large house. The building, which Nansen christened Polhøgda (“polar heights”), featured a mix of styles, including Italian renaissance and English manor house. The family began living there in 1902, and Nansen’s fifth and final child, Asmund (1903-1913), was born the following year. The house is now the location of the Fridtjof Nansen Institute (FNI).

Although he was not a politician, the Norwegian government respected Nansen’s opinions. In 1905, Norway voted to become independent from Sweden, which was ruled by King Oscar II. Subsequently, Norway needed a new king and ally, so Nansen was sent to Copenhagen to persuade a Danish prince to take up the seat. Nansen’s quest was successful, and on 22nd June 1906, Prince Charles of Denmark became Haakon VII (1872-1957) of Norway.

Due to his success, the government appointed Nansen Norway’s first Minister in London. This involved spending considerable time in England, where he was popular with the people and the king. His main task concerned the Integrity Treaty, which would guarantee Norway’s position among the major European powers. The Treaty was passed on 2nd November 1907, and believing his work was complete, Nansen resigned from his post. At the invitation of King Edward VII, Nansen stayed in the country for a couple more weeks, but after receiving news that his wife was seriously ill with pneumonia, he rushed back to Norway. Sadly, Eva had passed away before he reached home.

Following a period of mourning, Nansen resumed working at the university but decided to focus on oceanology rather than zoology. Nansen participated in several oceanographic voyages, exploring the north Atlantic ocean, the North Polar Basin and the Kara Sea. He continued these trips until the outbreak of World War One when he declared his neutrality and became the president of the Norwegian Union of Defence. After the war, Nansen arranged for the repatriation of around half a million prisoners, of which 300,000 were in Russia, where civil war was rife. When seeing the physical and mental state of these people, Nansen said, “Never in my life have I been brought into touch with so formidable an amount of suffering.”

The Nansen passport allowed stateless persons to legally cross borders

Horrified by the suffering of Norwegian prisoners of war, Nansen determined to help other people in similar situations, particularly Russian refugees. Many of these people had no documents or passports, so Nansen devised the “Nansen passport”, which permitted refugees to cross borders. The passport was a success and adopted by more than 50 governments. He also helped to repatriate hundreds of thousands of refugees after the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922. In 1922, Nansen won the Nobel Peace Prize for “his work for the repatriation of the prisoners of war, his work for the Russian refugees, his work to bring succour to the millions of Russians afflicted by famine, and finally his present work for the refugees in Asia Minor and Thrace”. He donated all the prize money to international relief organisations.

Before winning the prize, Nansen married his life-long friend Sigrun Munthe in 1919. Unfortunately, his children resented this, and the marriage became strained. Throughout the 1920s, Nansen spent most of his time abroad, partly avoiding his wife but mostly helping victims of the Armenian genocide. Nansen also hoped to travel to the North Pole by airship, but the war resulted in a severe lack of funding. Instead, he kept his hand in politics, becoming a member of the anti-communist Fatherland League. This also involved many trips away from his hometown, speaking at rallies around the country.

In 1925, Nansen was elected Rector of the University of St Andrews in Scotland, the first foreigner to hold the honorary position. The students chose him from a list of candidates to replace the previous Rector, Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). Rectors were invited to serve for three years, so Nansen held the position until 1928. At his inaugural address, Nansen encouraged the students to go out into the world. “We all have a Land of Beyond to seek in our life—what more can we ask? Our part is to find the trail that leads to it. A long trail, a hard trail, maybe; but the call comes to us, and we have to go. Rooted deep in the nature of every one of us is the spirit of adventure, the call of the wild—vibrating under all our actions, making life deeper and higher and nobler.”

Nansen remained a keen skier for the rest of his life and took several trips into the mountains in between his various duties and events. In February 1930, at the age of 68, he struggled to keep up with his friends on the slopes and tired easily. He returned home and spent several weeks in bed battling influenza. He had many visitors during this time, including King Haakon VII.

The illness left Nansen weak, and he never fully recovered. On 13th May 1930, he suffered a fatal heart attack, resulting in numerous tributes across the world. British lawyer Lord Robert Cecil (1864-1958) remarked that Nansen rarely put his interests and health first. “Every good cause had his support. He was a fearless peacemaker, a friend of justice, an advocate always for the weak and suffering.” Nansen received a non-religious state funeral, and his children spread his ashes under a tree in the garden of their childhood home, Polhøgda.

Nansen’s trips to Greenland and the Arctic helped shape future expeditions. He devised new methods of travel, for instance, the “Nansen sledge” and new cooking methods, the “Nansen Cooker”. His experience on the ice led to improved clothing and lightweight equipment, which made it easier for explorers to travel. Nansen also influenced the science world and is recognised as one of the founders of modern neurology and oceanographical science.

Due to Nansen’s work with refugees, he repatriated and found homes for around 1 million people. Those who continued with his work under the “Nansen Office” received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1938. Since 1954, the Nansen Refugee Award is given by the United Nations to an individual or group “for outstanding work on behalf of the forcibly displaced.” Winners include Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), the “people of Canada”, Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007), and Greek Volunteers of the Hellenic Rescue Team.

Many organisations have honoured Nansen by giving his name to several geographical features, including the Nansen Basin and the Nansen-Gakkel Ridge in the Arctic Ocean, Nansen Island in the Kara Sea, Nansen Land in Greenland and Nansen Island in Franz Josef Land. Unfortunately, outside his home country and Arctic areas, Fridtjof Nansen is not a well-known name, and his achievements are largely unrecognised. Yet, he is certainly a man worth learning about; not only was he the first man to cross Greenland, but he also helped save so many refugees. Nansen did not set out to become famous, his actions were usually selfless, and that is what makes him such a commendable individual.


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Ain’t I a Woman?

Sojourner Truth, 1870

Ain’t I a Woman? was the title of a speech given by the American abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth at a Women’s Rights Convention in 1851. Not only did Truth fight on behalf of women, but she also fought for the rights of African Americans. In her biography, Nell Irvin Painter wrote, “At a time when most Americans thought of slaves as male and women as white, Truth embodied a fact that still bears repeating: Among the blacks are women; among the women, there are blacks.” Truth was born into slavery but managed to escape, after which she set about improving lives for black people. Her determination won her a place in the “100 Most Significant Americans of All Time” listed by the Smithsonian magazine in 2014.

Born Isabella “Belle” Baumfree in 1797 on a slave trader’s estate at Swartekill, New York, Sojourner Truth was one of a dozen children born to James and Elizabeth Baumfree. Her parents belonged to Charles Hardenbergh, thus Truth and her siblings automatically became slaves at birth. When Hardenbergh died in 1806, Truth, known then as Belle, was sold to another slave owner, John Neely from Kingston, New York.

As a young child, Truth only spoke Dutch, but John Neely required his slaves to speak English. Neely was a cruel master and beat Truth and the other slaves daily. It was a welcome release when Neely sold her in 1808 to Martinus Schryver, a tavern owner in Port Ewen. Eighteen months later, Schryver sold Truth to the abusive John Dumont, who repeatedly raped her and made her life very difficult. As a result, Truth gave birth to two children, James, who died in infancy, and Diana (1815).

While working in the fields belonging to Dumont, Truth met a slave called Robert, who belonged to the owner of the neighbouring land. Robert’s master, the landscape artist Charles Catton the younger (1756-1819), forbade his slaves from having relationships with people belonging to other traders. Nonetheless, determined to be together, Robert sneaked over to visit Truth. Unfortunately, Catton discovered this and beat Robert to within an inch of his life. Truth never saw Robert again. Later, she met a man named Thomas, a slave belonging to her master. They married and had three children, Peter (1821), Elizabeth (1825), and Sophia (1826).

As well as picking cotton in the fields, Truth spent hours spinning wool and damaged her hand as a result. Dumont had promised to release Truth from slavery in 1826 “so long as she would do well and be faithful”, but he claimed her injury prevented her from being productive. Angry about this treatment, Truth plotted her escape and, taking her newborn daughter Sophia with her, walked away from the estate and never looked back. Truth knew that the emancipation of slaves would begin the following year and, so long as she was not caught, she would soon be a free woman. Unfortunately, her older children needed to work until they reached their twenties before being emancipated. She feared if they were caught escaping, the children would be beaten or killed, so she left them behind.

Issac and Maria Van Wagenen

Truth walked ten miles while carrying her daughter before she found someone willing to help her. Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen, a white couple from New Paltz, offered Truth and the baby a place to stay. Learning of her predicament, Isaac insisted on employing her until the state’s emancipation took effect. Whilst this made Truth the Van Wagenens slave, she and Sophia were safe. Grateful for the protection, Truth became a devout Christian.

After living with the Van Wagenens for some time, Truth learned that Dumont had illegally sold her eldest son Peter to a slave owner in Alabama. With the Van Wagenen’s help, Truth took the traders to court where, after a lengthy battle, seven-year-old Peter was returned to his mother. Never before had a black woman gone to court against a white man and won.

In 1829, Truth moved to New York City with Peter and Sophia, where she found work as a housekeeper for a Christian Evangelist, Elijah Pierson (1786-1834). Her boss often preached about God’s powers and, after his wife died in 1830, attempted to raise her from the dead. Despite failing to resurrect his wife, Pierson began referring to himself as “Elijah the Tishbite”, believing he was the biblical prophet and a miracle worker reborn. Through Pierson, Truth met and worked as the housekeeper for Robert Matthews (1788-1841), known as the “Prophet Matthias”. Matthews believed he was the resurrected Matthias from the New Testament who replaced the apostle Judas in the Acts of the Apostles. While working for Matthews, Pierson died from poisoning. Both Matthews and Truth were arrested but later acquitted of the murder.

Truth’s life took a turning point in the 1840s, beginning with the possible death of her son. Peter worked on a whaling ship called the Zone of Nantucket. When the ship returned to port in 1842, Peter was not on board. She never heard from him again. In 1843, Truth joined the Methodist church and officially changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She claimed on Pentecost Sunday that God spoke to her, asking her to speak the truth. She told her friends, “The Spirit calls me, and I must go”, and packed a pillowcase of her meagre belongings and headed north.

While travelling through New York, Truth joined Millerite Adventist groups who followed the teachings of Baptist minister William Miller (1782-1849). Miller strongly believed Jesus would reappear before the end of 1843. He studied the Bible carefully and based his calculations on verse fourteen of the eighth chapter of Daniel, which said, “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Miller assumed this cleansing referred to the events written about in the Book of Revelation. Sojourner Truth and many other millerites latched onto this belief, yet when Jesus failed to return as Miller had predicted, Truth and thousands of other members left feeling disillusioned.

The Northampton Association of Education and Industry

In 1844, Truth travelled to Massachusetts, where she joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry. The organisation supported women’s rights and religious freedom, which appealed to Truth. Most importantly, it was set up by a group of abolitionists. The organisation set up a commune looking after livestock and ran a sawmill and a silk factory. While living there, Truth helped in the laundry department and met several people who had also grown up in slavery, most notably the abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1817-95). She also befriended the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805-79). With their encouragement, Truth gave her first anti-slavery speech.

The Northampton Association of Education and Industry disbanded in 1846, and Truth found work as a housekeeper for George Benson (1808-79), the brother-in-law of William Lloyd Garrison. Around this time, she began writing her memoirs, which Garrison published in 1850 with the title The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: a Northern Slave. The book offers a glimpse into the world of slavery in northern states of America, which, unlike the southern states, remains largely undocumented. Truth recounted her separation from her family and the years spent travelling as a preacher. She also described her aims to counsel former slaves and end the struggles for racial and sexual equality.

Following the publication of her book, Sojourner Truth purchased her first home for $300 in Florence, Massachusetts. Growing in fame for her preaching talents, Truth was invited to speak at the first National Women’s Right’s Convention later that year. The meeting aimed “to secure for [woman] political, legal, and social equality with man until her proper sphere is determined by what alone should determine it, her powers and capacities, strengthened and refined by an education in accordance with her nature”. The convention was attended by over 900 women and men, both white and black. Truth’s friends, Douglass and Garrison, spoke on behalf of women, as did several other abolitionists and suffragists.

News of the National Women’s Rights Convention reached the United Kingdom and inspired British women to petition for woman suffrage and present it to the House of Lords. In 1851, female philosopher Harriet Taylor Mill (1807-58), the wife of John Stuart Mill (1806-73), wrote The Enfranchisement of Women. Later that year, Harriet Martineau, the first female sociologist, wrote to the organisers of the convention, saying, “I hope you are aware of the interest excited in this country by that Convention, the strongest proof of which is the appearance of an article on the subject in the Westminster Review … I am not without hope that this article will materially strengthen your hands, and I am sure it can not but cheer your hearts.”

In May 1851, Sojourner Truth attended the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, organised by Hannah Tracy (1815-96) and Frances Dana Barker Gage (1808-84). While there, Truth realised that many feminists and suffragists fought for the rights of white women and did not take into account the difficulties black people faced. This prompted Truth to stand up and give her most famous speech, now known as Ain’t I a Woman? Since the oration was unplanned, Truth did not have any written notes about the matter, and historians rely on accounts and transcripts by those in attendance, which contain many differences. Yet, they all agree that Truth demanded equal human rights for all women, both white and black. She spoke about her life as a former enslaved woman and combined her call for women’s rights with abolitionism.

The term Ain’t I a Woman stems from the phrase “Am I not a man and a brother?”, which British abolitionists coined during the 18th century. In the early 19th century, feminist abolitionists rewrote the phrase to read, “Am I not a woman and a sister?” It is likely Truth came across this saying in the American abolitionist newspaper Genius of Universal Emancipation, where it was printed alongside an image of a female slave. Alternatively, Truth may have heard speeches given by the African-American campaigner Maria W. Stewart (1803-79), who frequently used the term.

Truth’s speech inspired many people, and both the New York Tribune and The Liberator provided the general gist of Truth’s words a few days later. One attendee, Reverend Marius Robinson, printed a transcript of the speech in the Anti-Slavery Bugle, but it did not feature the phrase “Ain’t I a woman?” Twelves years after the event, Frances Dana Barker Gage printed another version of the transcript, which she likely embellished with ideas of her own. Gage frequently repeated the phrase, which in turn became the name of the speech. Gage also made Truth sound like a southern slave, but Truth was born in New York and spoke Dutch for much of her childhood, so she never picked up southern nuances.

Robinson quoted Truth as saying, “I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have ploughed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?” Gage, on the other hand, wrote, “And a’n’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And a’n’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear de lash as well! And a’n’t, I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen ’em mos’ all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And a’n’t I a woman?” Not only did Gage indicate a dialect that Truth did not use, but she also claimed Truth had 13 children, whereas official records suggest she only had five. Nonetheless, the speech is celebrated and often quoted as an example of black feminism.

Over the following ten years, Truth continued to speak at meetings of feminists and abolitionists. She frequently referred to Biblical characters, particularly Esther, to emphasise why women deserve the same rights as men. Truth used her experiences to demonstrate the unfair treatment of both women and slaves. “When Black women like Truth spoke of rights, they mixed their ideas with challenges to slavery and racism. Truth told her own stories, ones that suggested that a women’s movement might take another direction, one that championed the broad interests of all humanity.” (Martha Jones, 2020)

Sojourner Truth and President Abraham Lincoln photographed together for their one and only meeting

In 1864, Truth started working for the National Freedman’s Relief Association in Washington, D.C. She worked tirelessly to improve conditions for African-Americans and, later that year, she was honoured to meet President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65), who shared her aims to end slavery. Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves the previous year. He also passed the 13th Amendment in the Constitution that prohibited slavery or any involuntary servitude in the United States. Yet, many slave owners refused to obey these new laws and those who were freed found it difficult to integrate into society.

During the American Civil War (1861-65), Truth helped recruit black troops for the Union Army. She is credited with writing a song for the 1st Michigan Colored Regiment called The Valiant Soldiers. Written to the tune of John Brown’s Body, the song begins:
We are the valiant soldiers who’ve ‘listed for the war;
We are fighting for the Union, we are fighting for the law;
We can shoot a rebel farther than a white man ever saw,
As we go marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah, as we go marching on.

In 1867, Truth gave a speech at an American Equal Rights Association meeting, where she received a warm reception. She spoke about the rights of black women, saying that the push for equal rights had led to black men winning new rights, and it was only fair that women received them too. She insisted, “We should keep things going while things are stirring,” fearing that it would take people longer to consider women’s rights if left. Truth focused on the lack of voting rights, pointing out that she owned a house and paid taxes just like men. She ended the speech by saying, “Man is so selfish that he has got women’s rights and his own too, and yet he won’t give women their rights. He keeps them all to himself.”

On New Year’s Day in 1871, Sojourner Truth spoke at the Eighth Anniversary of Negro Freedom. She talked about her own life, particularly her early years when she often questioned God why he had not given her good masters. She admitted to hating white people, but after escaping from slavery, Truth said she met her final “master”, Jesus Christ, who taught her to love everyone. She regularly prayed for the emancipation of slaves and felt it her duty to help out as much as she could. Truth felt her prayers were answered with the abolition of slavery but acknowledged the southern states had far to go before they became safe areas for people of colour. Later that year, Truth spoke at the Second Annual Convention of the American Woman Suffrage Association, arguing that women deserved the right to vote “for the benefit of the whole creation, not only the women, but all the men on the face of the earth, for they were the mother of them”.

In her later years, Sojourner Truth was cared for by her daughters, Elizabeth and Sophia. She had at least two grandchildren, James and Sammy, who lived with her in Michigan during the 1860s. In 1867, Truth moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, where she lived for the rest of her life. In 1883, a reporter interviewed Truth for the Grand Rapids Eagle, noting that “Her face was drawn and emaciated and she was apparently suffering great pain. Her eyes were very bright and mind alert although it was difficult for her to talk.” Sojourner Truth passed away a few days later, in the early hours of 26th November 1883, at age 86. Her funeral took place three days after her death at the Congregational-Presbyterian Church, which almost 1000 people attended. Frederick Douglass provided a eulogy, noting all her hard work and achievements. “Venerable for age, distinguished for insight into human nature, remarkable for independence and courageous self-assertion, devoted to the welfare of her race, she has been for the last forty years an object of respect and admiration to social reformers everywhere.”

Since her death, many memorials and statues have been erected in memory of Sojourner Truth across the United States. Near her home in Battle Creek, a stone memorial was placed in Memorial Park in 1935. To mark the centenary of her birth, a 12-foot tall bronze statue of Sojourner Truth was also added to the park. In Ohio, a stone marks the spot where Truth gave her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. There are also sculptures in California and Massachusetts that celebrate the former slave.

Meredith Bergmann sculpture of Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in Central Park

New York State contains the most memorials to Sojourner Truth. A life-sized terracotta statue at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park Visitor’s Centre celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention, and a bronze statue of Sojourner Truth as an 11-year-old girl stands in Port Ewen, where she worked as a slave. The most recent statue of Truth was erected in Central Park in 2020 to mark Women’s Equality Day. Known as the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument, the sculpture depicts Truth alongside Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), who were pioneers in the battle for women’s rights.

Sculpture by Artis Lane Bronze 2009 Emancipation Hall, Capitol Visitor Center

Since 2009, a bust of Sojourner Truth sits in the Emancipation Hall in the Capitol Visitor Centre. Truth was the first African-American woman to be put on display in the Capitol. Designed by Black Canadian sculptor Artis Lane (b. 1927), the statue depicts Truth wearing her signature cap and shawl.

Several schools and libraries are named after Sojourner Truth, such as the Sojourner Truth Library at the New Paltz State University of New York. In 1969, a political group called the Sojourner Truth Organization was established to represent the left-wing black people of America. The 1997 NASA Mars Pathfinder was named Sojourner in her honour, as was the asteroid 249521 Truth in 2014.

On 4th February 1986, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative, 22-cent postage stamp featuring Sojourner Truth as part of their Black Heritage. She has also been honoured with a Google Doodle and features on the lists of the top 100 Americans in history.

Sojourner Truth did not have an easy childhood. She grew up hating white people, but through her strong Christian faith, she learned to love everyone equally. Truth witnessed the injustices of the world first hand, both by being an African American and by being a woman. She believed that just as Jesus loves every one of us, all humans, no matter their colour or gender, should receive the same rights. While campaigning for the end of slavery and equal rights for black people, Truth also wanted women, including white women, to live on the same terms as men. Some civil rights activists caused trouble by implying black lives mattered more than white, but Sojourner Truth made it clear that all lives mattered. Despite everything she went through, Truth wanted everyone to live in harmony. If only there were more people like Sojourner Truth in the world today.


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Stamps: A Brief British History

The history of the British postal system dates back to the 12th century when King Henry I (1068-1135) appointed messengers to deliver letters to and from members of the government. Since then, the country has developed an efficient national service, which inspired countries around the world to do the same. Britain also takes credit for the first postage stamp, the Penny Black, which revolutionised the method of sending letters both in Britain and across the planet.

Monarchs followed in Henry I’s footsteps, utilising messengers to carry letters. Henry III (1207-72) gave his men uniforms to show they were on official business for the King. The general public could hire messengers, but these men had no distinguishing clothing. Many households sent kitchen boys or other servants to deliver notes across the city or to neighbouring towns.

Messengers often travelled for several days to deliver the monarch’s messages to recipients in other counties or countries. Although some went on foot, most had horses to speed up the journey. During the reign of Edward I (1239-1307), stations, later known as post houses, were set up in or between various towns where mounted couriers could change horses or rest for the evening. Centuries later, these establishments developed into post offices.

Although postage stamps did not emerge until the 19th century, post markings developed as early as the 14th century. Urgent letters often featured handwritten notes, such as “Haste. Post haste”, which let the courier know to make the delivery a priority. During the 16th century, the Privy Council of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) developed a “gallows” symbol to indicate the degree of urgency. The contents did not necessarily concern the gallows or execution, but it let the messenger know it was a letter of extreme importance.

In 1516, Henry VIII (1491-1547) appointed Brian Tuke (d.1545) as the “Master of the Postes”, thus creating the Royal Mail. At this time, only the royal family and members of the court could use the postal service. Tuke oversaw all the post to and from the royal court and arranged for couriers to make several deliveries during one journey. For this, Tuke received £100 a year and received a knighthood. Tuke also served as High Sheriff of Essex and Hertfordshire and owned manors in South Weald, Layer Marney, Thorpe, and East Lee.

During the reign of Charles I (1600-49), the Royal Mail became available to the public. The King instructed chief postmaster Thomas Witherings (d.1651) to arrange “a running post or two to run day and night between Edinburgh and Scotland and the City of London, to go thither and come back in six days”. Thus, the Post Office came into being. Witherings also oversaw the construction of six “Great Roads” and employed a postmaster to take charge of each one. The postmaster’s duties included providing new horses at every two and a half miles for the couriers.

In 1661, Charles II (1630-85) replaced the “Master of the Postes” with the Postmaster General. The King appointed Henry Bishop (1605-91) as the first man with this title and gave him the responsibility to oversee the handling and delivery of the Royal Mail. Since the service was made available to the public, the number of people sending letters rapidly increased. As a result, it took longer for letters to arrive. After a series of complaints, Bishop devised the first postmark “that is putt upon every letter shewing the day of the moneth that every letter comes to the office, so that no Letter Carryer may dare detayne a letter from post to post; which before was usual.” This postmark, which was first used on 19th April 1661, quickly became known as the “Bishop Mark” after its creator. It consisted of a small circle of 13 mm diameter with the month abbreviated to two letters in the lower half and the day in the upper. Bishop also increased the delivery routes across the country, with post offices in each town. Eventually, unique postmarks developed for each area to show from whence the post came.

Letters and parcels were usually paid for by the recipient on receipt. Some people complained about the expense, particularly about letters sent over short distances. To improve the system, an English merchant, William Dockwra (1635-1716), with the help of his assistant Robert Murray (1635-1725), devised the London Penny Post in 1680, which allowed inhabitants of London to send mail across the city for one penny. To use this service, the senders took their letters to a local post office and paid the penny fee rather than relying on the recipient to pay the charge.

Whilst the London Penny Post was successful, the rest of the country were charged per distance, weight or amount of paper used in their letters. People came up with ways to avoid paying the steep charges, such as writing extra small or, if the letter was not prepaid, reading the message and handing it back to the postman. After many discussions, the Great Post Office Reform of 1839 and 1840 set about reversing the financial losses of the service as a result of this misuse. The Reform aimed to nationalise the penny post, a concept championed by Sir Rowland Hill (1795-1879). After much debate, Royal Mail adopted Hill’s suggestion of charging one penny to send an envelope of up to half an ounce in weight anywhere in the country or two pence if the fee was collected from the recipient.

The Post Office felt sceptical about lowering the price of postage to a fixed rate of one penny, but Hill rightly pointed out that it would encourage more people to send letters. This sparked the worry that post offices would soon become the busiest establishments in British towns and cities, which inspired Rowland Hill to devise a new means of sending mail. Rather than paying for each letter at a post office, Hill suggested selling prepaid adhesive labels to stick on envelopes. This meant people could buy several labels in one go and reduce the number of trips to the post office. Instead, they could place their letters in the provided post boxes. Thus, the world’s first stamp was born.

The world’s first stamp, the Penny Black, came into use on 6th May 1840 and allowed letters of up to half an ounce to be sent anywhere in the country. Rowland Hill first proposed the idea in 1837, although it took some time for the Post Office to agree to it. Eventually, Hill received permission to begin the project and announced a design competition for the new stamps. Over 2,600 people submitted entries, but they were all impractical. Finally, Hill chose a simple design featuring the profile of Queen Victoria (1819-1901).

Hill commissioned the engraver Charles Heath (1785-1848) to engrave the image of the Queen based on a sketch by Henry Corbould (1787-1844). The size of the stamp was 3/4 inch wide by 7/8 inch tall (19 x 22 mm), which allowed room for the portrait as well as the words “Postage” and “One Penny”. The two upper corners on the design featured the Maltese Cross, and the bottom corners denoted the position of the stamp in the printed sheet. A printed sheet held 240 stamps in 20 rows of 12 columns. The stamps on the top row contained the letters AA, AB, AC and so forth, and on the bottom row, TA, TB, TC etc. The stamps were printed in shades of black, hence its name.

Two days after the Penny Black came into use, the Post Office issued a Two Penny Blue for the postage of letters weighing up to an ounce. The stamps were an immediate success, but the Penny Black soon began to cause problems. After receiving letters, post offices marked the stamp in red ink to show it had been used. Due to the darkness of the Penny Black, the red ink did not show up well and was easily washed off. Learning of this, many people were able to reuse the stamps. By February 1841, the Penny Black had been replaced with the Penny Red, and post offices used black ink to mark used stamps.

Whilst purchasing several stamps on one sheet was useful, the only way to separate them was to cut them out with scissors. This inefficient method inspired printers to develop more practical ways, such as perforation, which became standard practice in 1854. Lines of small holes along the edges of each stamp allowed the user to tear them apart without causing any damage.

The Penny Red and Two Penny Blue were a great success, but people also wanted to send letters and parcels that weighed more than one ounce. Some letters arrived at their destination with more than one stamp affixed to the envelope. This encouraged the Post Office to issue stamps for higher values. Between 1847 and 1854, they produced three new stamps: 1 shilling (12 pence), 10 pence and 6 pence. They were green, brown and purple respectively, and featured a watermark with the letters V R. Unlike the red and blue stamps, these embossed postage stamps were octagonal and could only be printed one at a time.

In 1855, a new method of printing allowed for the production of cheaper stamps. Surface printing, which is still used today to print wallpaper, is an automated printing method that quickly transfers an image to the paper using very little ink. A large reel of paper is threaded through the machine, which in the 19th century resembled a Ferris wheel. Whilst the first stamp printed in this method was a 4 pence stamp, printers were soon churning out halfpenny and penny halfpenny stamps.

The first halfpenny postage stamp was the Halfpenny Rose Red, first issued on 1st October 1870. Nicknamed “Bantams” due to their small size, the stamps were only 17.5 mm × 14 mm (0.69 in × 0.55 in), half the size of a Penny Red. These were intended for the sending of newspapers and postcards, which usually weighed less than letters. The stamps featured the engraved portrait of Queen Victoria with “12d” printed on either side. They were printed 480 to a page and watermarked with the word “halfpenny”. After ten years, the Halfpenny Green replaced the Rose Red.

On the same day as the Halfpenny Rose Red, the Post Office issued the Three Halfpence Red, also known as penny halfpennies. Printed in a similar colour as the halfpenny, the Three Halfpence was suitable for sending letters that weighed more than half an ounce but less than one ounce. The stamps featured the profile of Queen Victoria surrounded by the words “Three Halfpenny Postage”.

Larger stamps, including 5 shillings (25p), 10 shillings (50p), £1 and £5 also appeared in the 1870s and 1880s. Around the same time, the contract with Messrs. Perkins, Bacon & Co, who printed the Penny Red, came to an end. The stamps were temporarily replaced by surface printed Penny Venetian Reds but new laws resulting from the Customs and Inland Revenue Act of 1881 necessitated the words “Postage and Inland Revenue” on the stamp, so the Post Office commissioned a new design resulting in the Penny Lilac.

The Penny Lilac broke with the traditional design of stamps, which had rectangular designs. The new stamp, whilst printed on perforated rectangles, featured the profile of Queen Victoria inside an oval containing the words “Postage and Inland Revenue” and “One Penny”. Early versions of the Penny Lilac had 14 dots in each corner, but later versions had 16. Unlike the previous stamps, the engraved design was printed in purple while the background remains blank. This meant the stamps could be printed with less ink, allowing Royal Mail to save on expense.

All the other stamps needed new designs due to the Customs and Inland Revenue Act. Printers decided to use the same colour purple for the lower valued stamps (1 12d, 2d, 2 12d, 3d) and green for the higher (4d, 5d, 6d, 9d and 1s). The choice of colours was chosen to prevent forgers from reusing the stamps. People frequently washed red and blue stamps to remove postmarks, but the new purple and green inks would fade in contact with water.

Many complained about the new designs because they were simple in comparison to the original stamps. This was due to the rush to create them after the 1881 Act. The 2d, 2 12d, 6d, and 9d stamps were a horizontal format, which also received complaints. Due to this, the Post Office considered revamping the designs.

The Post Office commissioned their designers to produce unique designs for each existing stamp from a halfpenny to one shilling. With Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee approaching in 1887, they aimed to print them that year in her honour. Collectively, these stamps are known as the “Jubilee Issue” and have a more elaborate design than the lilac and green stamps. Despite celebrating the Queen’s 50th year on the throne, they decided to continue using the original profile picture of the 18-year-old Victoria. Some of the stamp designs contained two different colours to make them easier to tell apart.

Happy with the new designs, the Jubilee stamps remained for the rest of Victoria’s reign. When her son, Edward VII (1841-1910), succeeded the throne in 1901, new stamps became necessary. By reusing the frames for the Jubilee stamps, the Post Office quickly issued new versions featuring the profile of the new king. To prevent people from reusing the stamps, they were printed on chalk-surfaced paper, which was designed to smear if anyone attempted to remove the postage mark.

When George V (1865-1936) became king in 1910, the stamp design remained relatively the same, but in 1924, the United Kingdom released its first commemorative stamp. Featuring the King’s profile on one half and a lion on the other, the stamps commemorated the British Empire Exhibition held in Wembley Park from 23rd April 1924 until 31st October 1925. Of the 58 territories in the British Empire, only Ghana and Gibraltar did not participate. Each country brought items to exhibit and sell based on their cultures, which they displayed in unique pavilions. Malta’s pavilion, for example, was modelled on a Maltese fort and the Australian pavilion displayed a 16-foot diameter ball of Australian wool.

The next major change in stamp design occurred after the death of George V. In 1936, Edward VIII came to the throne, prompting the Post Office to issue a set of four stamps ready for his coronation. Unfortunately, Edward VIII abdicated, and the stamps were only used for a few months. In comparison to previous designs, the Edward VIII stamp was rather simple, only featuring the profile of the king, a crown, the denomination and the word “Postage”. The design was suggested by 18-year-old H.J. Brown and the portrait of Edward was photographed by Hugh Cecil (1889-1974). To prevent forgeries, the stamp was watermarked with the symbol of a crown and “E8R”. The 12d green, the 1 12d brown and the 2 12d blue were issued on 1st September 1936, followed by the Penny Red on 14th September.

George VI’s (1895-1952) stamps were relatively simple in comparison to its predecessors, yet they were more ornate than Edward VIII. The new stamp featured an image of the King based on a plaster cast by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953). They were printed on a solid colour background with the words “Postage” and “Revenue” written on either side of the King’s profile. In the corners, a flower represented each of the countries that made up the United Kingdom: a rose for England, a thistle for Scotland, a daffodil for Wales and shamrocks for Northern Ireland. In 1937, the stamps became lighter in colour because the printers wished to save money on ink in anticipation of the Second World War.

In 1940, the Post Office released commemorative stamps to celebrate the centenary of the postage stamp. At double the size of the usual stamps, the centenary stamps featured the portrait of Queen Victoria and George VI side by side. A total of six different designs were produced, one for each of the denominations from 12d to 3d. Other commemorative stamps printed during George VI’s reign celebrated the king’s silver wedding, the liberation of the Channel Islands, the 1948 London Olympic Games, the Universal Postal Union’s 75th anniversary and the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851.

New stamps were once again needed when Elizabeth II (b.1926) succeeded her father in 1952. The image of the Queen was taken from a photograph by Dorothy Wilding (1893-1976), who had worked as a royal photographer since 1937. In the photograph, the Queen wears the State Diadem, which Queen Victoria wore in her portrait for the Penny Black. Over 75 designs were considered for the stamp before deciding upon five that resembled the much-loved stamps of the past. Eighteen different values of stamps were printed featuring the new Queen whose face was half turned to the viewer rather than in profile.

During Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, there have been hundreds of commemorative stamps, for example, the Coronation in 1953 and the World Scout Jubilee Jamboree in 1957. Yet, until 1964, the only people to feature on stamps were members of the royal family. In celebration of his 400th birthday, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) became the first “commoner” to have his face on a British stamp. A series of five stamps were designed for the occasion, one of which displayed the playwright’s face alongside the Queen. The other designs contained the Queen and an illustration portraying a scene from a Shakespeare play.

Whereas the profiles of previous monarchs were easy to reproduce as a silhouette to print on other items and commemorative paraphernalia, the Queen’s half-turned face caused problems. This prompted a redesign of British stamps in 1967 using a profile image made by English sculptor Arnold Machin (1911-99). Rather than an ornate design, the stamps were reduced to a coloured background, profile image of the Queen and the denomination in the bottom left-hand corner.

In 1970, the stamps needed editing again after Great Britain adopted decimal currency. New denominations appeared in the corners of the stamps, such as, 10p, 20p and 50p. In 1972, the Post Office issued £1, £2, and £5 stamps and later the odd values of £1.30, £1.33, £1.41, £1.50 and £1.60.

The new prices of stamps were confusing for many people, so the Post Office restricted the higher denominations to £1, £1.50, £2 and £5. In 1988, they issued four new designs featuring illustrations of castles from each country in the United Kingdom, based on photographs taken by Prince Andrew (b.1960). A small version of the Queen’s profile sat in the corner of each stamp alongside the image of Carrickfergus on the £1 green stamp, Caernarfon on the £1.50 brown, Edinburgh on the £2 blue and Windsor on the £5 brown.

Due to inflation, prices of stamps increased, which caused many difficulties for designers and printers. To work around the problem of fast-changing rates, the Post Office released non-denominated postage stamps, known as 1st class and 2nd class. These stamps remain in use today, and the prices can change without affecting the design. In 1993, self-adhesive stamps were printed, meaning people no longer needed to lick the back of a stamp to stick it to the envelope. In 2009, two ellipsoidal panels were added to each stamp to make them harder to remove and reuse.

Every Christmas, the Post Office releases festive-themed stamps, which always feature a small profile of the Queen in one corner. Hundreds of commemorative stamps are also printed each year, some of which cost more than the standard rate. People who have been commemorated include Princess Diana (1961-97), the Queen Mother (1900-2002), Winston Churchill (1874-1965), Inigo Jones (1573-1652), William Morris (1834-96), Roald Dahl (1916-90), Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and the gold medal winners of the 2012 Olympics. Significant events, such as the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and the millennium, received special stamps, as have the anniversaries of buildings and organisations, including Westminster Abbey, the NHS and Great Ormond Street. Even fictional characters have featured on British stamps, for instance, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter and Winnie the Pooh.

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The Phoenix of America

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Miguel Cabrera

All she wanted was to read, learn and write in peace without being dictated to by the misogynistic Mexican society. Juana Inés de la Cruz lived during Mexico’s colonial period when women were not allowed to attend university. Despite this, Juana educated herself through books and began writing her thoughts about love, feminism and religion. Yet, Juana could not avoid the advances of men who believed she should settle down and marry. She sought the safety of a nunnery, which allowed her to continue writing until her opinions upset (male) members of the clergy. This is the story of the first feminist in the Americas, the “Phoenix of America”, who rose from the ashes of “religious authoritarianism”.

Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana was born on 12th November 1648 in the village of San Miguel Nepantla near Mexico City. Although she had older sisters, Juana was an illegitimate child because her parents never married. Her father, a Spanish captain called Pedro Manuel de Asbaje, abandoned the family shortly after Juana’s birth. Her mother was a Criolla woman called Isabel Ramírez. The Corillo people were Latin Americans with Spanish ancestors, which gave them more authority in Colonial Mexico, which belonged to the Spanish Empire. Juana’s father was Spanish, and her maternal grandparents were Spanish, thus making her a Criolla.

Hacienda Panoaya in Amecameca, Mexico is where Sor Juana lived between 1651 and 1656

Despite the lack of care from her biological father, Juana grew up in relative comfort on her maternal grandfather’s Hacienda, the Spanish equivalent of an estate. Her favourite place was the Hacienda chapel, where Juana hid with books stolen from her grandfather’s library. Girls were forbidden to read for leisure, but this did not prevent Juana from learning to read and write. At the age of three, Juana followed her sister to school and quickly learned how to read Latin. Allegedly, by the age of 5, Juana understood enough mathematics to write accounts, and at 8, wrote her first poem.

By her teens, Juana knew enough to teach other children Latin and could also understand Nahuatl, an Aztec language spoken in central Mexico since the seventh century. It was unusual for those of Spanish descent to speak the native languages. The Spanish aimed to replace the Mexicano tongue with their Latin alphabet, so it was almost with defiance that Juana went out of her way to not only learn Nahuatl but compose poems in the language too.

Juana finished school at 16 but wished to continue her studies at university. Unfortunately, only men could receive higher education. Juana spoke to her mother about her aspirations, suggesting she could disguise herself as a man to attend the university in Mexico City. Despite her pleading, Juana’s mother refused to allow her daughter to attempt such a risky plan. Instead, Isabel sent Juana to the colonial viceroy’s court to work as a lady-in-waiting.

Antonio Sebastián Álvarez de Toledo

Under the guardianship of the viceroy’s wife, Leonor de Carreto (1616-73), Juana continued her studies in private. Yet, she could not keep her ambitions secret from her mistress, who informed the viceroy of Juana’s intelligence. Rather than reprimanding her, the viceroy Antonio Sebastián Álvarez de Toledo (1622-1715) took an interest in Juana’s education. Wishing to test Juana’s intellect, the viceroy arranged a meeting of several theologians, philosophers, and poets and invited them to question the young girl. The men quizzed Juana on many topics, including science and literature, and she managed to impress them with her answers. They also admired how Juana conducted herself, and she remained unphased by the difficult questions they threw at her.

News of the meeting spread throughout the viceregal court. No longer needing to hide her writing skills, Juana produced many poems and other writings that impressed all those who read them. Her literary accomplishments spread across the Kingdom of New Spain, which covered much of North America, northern parts of South America and several islands in the Pacific Ocean. Yet, female scholars and writers were an anomaly at the time, and rather than attract praise, Juana drew the attention of many suitors. After refusing many proposals of marriage, Juana felt desperate to escape from the domineering men. She wanted “to have no fixed occupation which might curtail [her] freedom to study.” The only safe place she could find where she could continue her work was the Monastery of St. Joseph, so she became a nun.

Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana

Juana spent over a year with the Discalced Carmelite nuns as a postulant, then moved to the monastery of the Hieronymite nuns in 1669, preferring their more relaxed rules. The San Jerónimo Convent, which became Juana’s home for the rest of her life, was established in 1585 by Isabel de Barrios. Only four nuns lived in the building at first, but they soon grew in number, becoming one of the first convents of nuns of the Saint Jerome order. They based their role in life on the biblical scholar Saint Jerome (342-420), who translated most of the Bible into Latin. Known for his religious teachings, Jerome favoured women and identified how a woman devoted to Jesus should live her life. During his lifetime, Jerome knew many women who had taken a vow of virginity. He advised them on the clothing they should wear, how to conduct themselves in public, and what and how they should eat and drink.

Sor Juana, by Juan de Miranda (circa 1680)

Despite taking on the title “Sor”, the Spanish equivalent of sister, Sor Juana’s main aim was to focus on her literary pursuits. Whilst she followed the ways of the Hieronymite nuns, she spent all her spare time writing. Juana’s previous employers, the Viceroy and Vicereine of New Spain became her patrons, helping her publish her work in colonial Mexico and Spain. Sor Juana also received support from the intellectual Don Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora (1645-1700), who shared her religious beliefs as well as her passion for literature. Sigüenza, who claimed, “There is no pen that can rise to the eminence … of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz,” also encouraged Juana to explore scientific topics.

Sor Juana dedicated some of her works, particularly her poems, to her patrons. Those written for Vicereine Leonor de Carreto often featured the name Laura, a codename assigned by Juana. Another patron, Marchioness Maria Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga (1649-1721) was “Lysi”. Juana also wrote a comic play called Los empeños de una casa (House of Desires) for Doña Maria Luisa and her husband in celebration of the birthday of their first child, José.

The first performance of Los empeños de una casa took place on 4th October 1683 and contains three songs in praise of Doña María Luisa Manrique: “Divine Lysi, Let Pass“, “Beautiful María” and “Tender Beautiful Flower Bud”. The protagonist, Doña Ana of Arellano, resembles the marchioness, who Sor Juana held in high regard. The play features two couples who are in love but cannot be together. Mistaken identities cause the characters much distress and the audience much hilarity. By the end of the final scene, everyone pairs up with the right partner, except one man who remains single as a punishment for causing the initial deception. In terms of theme and drama, Los empeños de una casa is a prime example of Mexican baroque theatre.

Another play by Sor Juana premiered on 11th February 1689 to mark the inauguration of the viceroyalty Gaspar de la Cerda y Mendoza (1653-97). Sor Juana based Love is but a Labyrinth on the Greek mythological story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Theseus, the king and founder of Athens, fights against the half-bull, half-human Minotaur to save the Cretan princess Ariadne. Although Theseus resembled the archetypal baroque hero, Sor Juana portrayed him as a humble man rather than proud.

Sor Juana also demonstrated Baroque literature in her poetry. Often full of philosophical ideas, Juana explored themes of the deceptiveness of appearances and female intelligence. In Hombres necios (Foolish Men), for example, the nun reveals the illogical behaviour of men towards women, treating them as objects of passion rather than human beings. In other poems, Juana wrote about the disillusionment of love and the pain it caused.

The first part of Sor Juana’s complete works, Madrid, 1689

Arguably, Sor Juana’s best poem is Primero sueño (First Dream), 975-lines about the torturous quest of the soul for knowledge. As night falls and the body sleeps, the soul separates from the body and dreams. The soul contemplates the world and the existence of everything from flowers to human life, taking into account all the details and mysteries of each object. Yet, it fails to grasp the overwhelming abundance of the universe, and the sun rises once more, forcing the soul back into the body.

Critics interpreted Primero sueño as Sor Juana’s dreams or thoughts, which were highly philosophical compared to the average person. She explored themes of Neoplatonism, the idea that the world is divided into hierarchies, and Scholasticism, which combined Christian theology with classical philosophy, particularly that of Aristotle (384-322 BC). The latter believed every living organism had more than one purpose or cause, which Aristotle split into ten categories: substance; quantity; quality; relatives; somewhere; sometime; being in a position; having; acting; and being acted upon. It is likely Sor Juana came across Aristotle’s Categories during her studies, either in her grandfather’s library or the San Jerónimo Convent.

Sor Juana’s writings, poems and plays covered many of her interests, such as religion, philosophy, mathematics and science. She also enjoyed music and studied the theory of instrumental tuning, on which she wrote a treatise. Sadly, this work is lost, but evidence suggests she wrote some of her poems, intending to set them to music.

The first part of Sor Juana’s complete works, Madrid, 1689

Not all of Sor Juana’s writings were intended for public consumption. In 1690, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz (1637-99), the Bishop of Puebla, published Sor Juana’s critique of a sermon by the Jesuit priest Father António Vieira (1608-97). Titled Carta Atenagórica (Athenagorical Letter or a letter “worthy of Athena’s wisdom”), Juana expressed her dislike of the colonial system and her belief that religious doctrines are the product of human interpretation. She criticised Father António Vieira for his dramatic and philosophical representation of theological topics. Most importantly, Juana called the priest out for his anti-feminist attitude.

Alongside Sor Juana’s critique, the Bishop of Puebla published a letter under the pseudonym Sor Filotea de la Cruz, in which he admonished the nun for her opinions. Ironically, the bishop agreed with many of Sor Juana’s thoughts, but he ended the letter by saying Sor Juana should concentrate on religious rather than secular studies. Whilst the critique focused on a religious sermon, Sor Juana included colonialism and politics in her argument, which the bishop felt were inappropriate topics for a woman, let alone a nun.

Carta Atenagórica

“Sor Filotea expresses the admiration she feels for Sor Juana, but at the same time reproaches her for exercising her talent in profane subjects instead of devotional literature. Although Sister Filotea does not declare herself against the education of women, she does express her dissatisfaction with the lack of obedience that some already educated women might demonstrate. Finally, she recommends Sor Juana to follow the example of other mystical writers who dedicated themselves to theological literature, such as Santa Teresa de Ávila or San Gregorio Nacianceno.”

Sor Juana responded to Sor Filotea, the Bishop of Puebla, in which she defended women’s rights to education and further study. Whilst she agreed that women should not neglect their duties, in her case her obedience to the Church and God, Juana pointed out that “One can perfectly well philosophise while cooking supper.” By this, she meant women could balance their education and everyday tasks. She jokingly followed this with the quip, “If Aristotle had cooked, much more would have been written.”

In her response, Sor Juana quoted the Spanish nun St Teresa of Ávila (1515-82) as well as St Jerome and St Paul to back up her argument that “human arts and sciences” are necessary to understand sacred theology. She suggested if women were elected to positions of authority, they could educate other women, thus alleviating a male tutor’s fears of being in intimate settings with female students.

The nun’s controversial response caused a lot of concern amongst high-ranking (male) officials who criticised her “waywardness”. They were angry with Sor Juana for challenging the patriarchal structure of the Catholic Church, and for claiming her writing was as good as historical and biblical texts. As a result, the San Jerónimo Convent forbade Juana from reading and sold her collection of over 4,000 books and scientific instruments for charity. With no one on her side, Sor Juana relented and agreed to renew her vows. The convent also required Juana to undergo penance, but rather than signing the penitential documents with her name, she wrote: “Yo, la Peor de Todas” (I, the worst of all women).

From 1693 onwards, Sor Juana focused solely on her religious orders. Never again did she pick up a pen to write or a book to read. Instead, Juana spent her time either in prayer or tending the sick, which led to fatal consequences. After nursing other nuns stricken during a plague, Sor Juana fell ill and passed away on 17th April 1695.

Before she was silenced, Sor Juana penned over 100 works, the majority of which went unpublished. Unfortunately, many were lost, and only a handful remain. Those that survived were compiled into an anthology. Several writers, including the Mexican poet and diplomat Octavio Paz (1914-98), have studied Juana’s life and writings, focusing on the difficulties women faced while trying to thrive in academic fields. Several scholars argue that Juana’s advocacy of intellectual authority is one of the first recorded instances of feminism. Some liken her to the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-54), although Juana was ahead of her time – a protofeminist.

Monument of Sor Juana in Chapultepec.

Although Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is almost an unknown entity in the non-Spanish speaking world, her work and reputation live on in Mexico, where she remains a national icon. Her former cloister is now the University of the Cloister of Sor Juana, which the Mexican government founded in 1979. During the renovations, builders discovered bones believed to belong to the nun. Due to a lack of ancestors, tests cannot be carried out on the bones to confirm the identity, but a medallion similar to the one depicted in portraits of Juana found in the same place is enough evidence for some.

Feminist movements of the past and present have adopted Sor Juana as a symbol, along with Frida Kahlo. Some also link both women to LGBT movements, although Sor Juana never disclosed her sexuality. Evidence suggests Sor Juana became a nun to avoid marriage, but others argue she was an “Indigenous lesbian”. As part of her penance, Juana cut her hair, which some interpret as an attempt to masculinise her appearance, likening it to Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940).

Statue of Sor Juana Inés in Madrid, Spain.

Sor Juana is also a religious symbol of Mexican identity, both in relation to Catholicism and Aztec beliefs. The latter is due to Juana’s choice to write some of her poems in the indigenous Nahuatl language. She also wrote a play, El Divino Narciso (Loa to Divine Narcissus), which features two Indigenous people named Occident and America, discussing their religious beliefs with two Spaniards, Religion and Zeal. Yet, her devotion to the Virgin Mary is evident in other work by Sor Juana, as is her decision to take her vows at the San Jerónimo Convent.

Juana Ines de la Cruz in art by Mexican artist Mauricio García Vega.

Sor Juana continued to inspire and influence people in Mexico and Spain in the 20th century. She appears as characters in literature, such as Yo-Yo Boing! by Puerto Rican author Giannina Braschi (b.1953), which debates the greatest women poets, including Sor Juana and Emily Dickinson (1830-86). In 1962, Telesistema Mexicano broadcast a mini-series based on Sor Juana’s life; and in 1990, the film Yo, la peor de todas (I, the Worst of All) premiered, based on Octavio Paz’s book about the Mexican nun.

In the 21st century, Sor Juana’s fame finally made its way into English speaking countries. In 2004, Canadian author Paul Anderson published a novel based on Sor Juana’s life called Hunger’s Brides, which won the Alberta Book Award the following year. In 2007, Margaret Atwood (b.1939) published a book of poems, including Sor Juana Works in the Garden. In the music world, American composer John Adams (b.1947) used two of Sor Juana’s poems in the libretto for the oratorio-opera El Niño (2000). In 2015, the Royal Shakespeare Company performed Helen Edmundson’s (b.1964) play The Heresy of Love as part of the Spanish Golden Age season. Finally, in 2017, Google honoured Sor Juana with a Google Doodle to mark her 366th birthday.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz has yet to earn her place among the greatest women in the world outside of Spanish speaking countries, but her ideas are gradually making their way into contemporary works. Sometimes referred to as the “The Tenth Muse” and “The Phoenix of America”, Sor Juana is an inspiration to everyone who faces adversity, particularly in terms of human rights and education. Fortunately, life for women has drastically improved since Sor Juana’s time, but the necessary changes only began 100 years ago. Sor Juana was not afraid to point out the inequalities in her society. Yet, with no one to back her up, there was nothing she could do to change things during her lifetime. If Sor Juana could see the world today, she would be pleased with our progress.


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The Queen of Science

When researching women of science, Mary Somerville is a name that frequently crops up. Since past societies often wrote women out of history, Mary Somerville must have been a scientist of some significance to feature so often in biographies of other women (and men). Mary Somerville receives a mention in two of my recent blogs about female scientists (Ada Lovelace and Caroline Herschel), so it is about time I focused on Mary’s life and achievements.

Mary Fairfax, Mrs William Somerville – Thomas Phillips

Born on 26th December 1780 in Jedburgh, Scotland, Mary was the second of four surviving children to Vice-Admiral William George Fairfax (1739-1813) and Margaret Charters. Despite her father’s position, his pay was meagre, and Mary grew up in poverty in her childhood home at Burntisland, Fife. To earn some extra money, Mary’s mother grew and sold vegetables and fruit and kept a cow for milk. Mary’s father spent much of her early life at sea, leaving her mother to give her a rudimentary education by teaching her to read the Bible.

When Mary was ten years old, her father returned from his recent voyage and expressed his discontent with Mary’s lack of education. After scraping together as much money as possible, Fairfax sent his daughter to a boarding school in Musselburgh for a year, where she learnt English grammar and French.

Over the following year, Mary developed a fascination with shells and small sea creatures, which she found while spending hours on the beach. When at home, her mother expected Mary to help around the house, but she often retreated to her father’s library to read. As a result, her parents sent her to a local school to learn the more feminine art of needlework. Mary expressed her contempt in her memoirs, admitting she “was annoyed that my turn for reading was so much disapproved of, and thought it unjust that women should have been given a desire for knowledge if it were wrong to acquire it.”

Mary Somerville as a Young Lady – John Jackson

Aware of her desire to learn, the headmaster of the village school paid home visits to Mary to teach her about geography. This came to an end after her 13th birthday when her mother sent Mary to writing school in Edinburgh, where she also studied arithmetic. In her spare time, Mary attempted to teach herself Latin, later seeking the help of her uncle, Rev. Dr Thomas Somerville (1741-1830). Mary also taught herself the Greek language and how to play the piano during school holidays and, instead of returning to the writing school, enrolled at an art school run by Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840). Nasmyth also had an interest in astronomy and mechanical science, and he gladly became Mary’s tutor on the subjects.

In 1797, Mary’s father helped Admiral Adam Duncan (1731-1804) beat the Dutch at the Battle of Camperdown while serving on HMS Venerable. For this, Fairfax earned a knighthood and became Colonel of Marines. The family’s income significantly increased, and they joined Edinburgh socialites at many social events, where Mary earned the nickname “the Rose of Jedburgh”. When at home, Mary’s parents expected her to play the traditional role of a daughter, but when not in public, Mary focused on playing the piano, painting and studying algebra. Sadly, the family’s good fortune was marred by the death of Mary’s older brother Samuel, who died while serving in the East India Company’s military service, aged 21.

Self Portrait – Mary Somerville

In 1804, Mary met a distant cousin, Captain Samuil Samuilovich Greig (1778-1807), a Russian Consul. The same year, Mary married Grieg, some claim by force and moved to London. In 1805, they welcomed a son, Woronzow (1805-65), named after a Russian diplomat. Their second son, George, soon followed, who Mary nursed while simultaneously trying to study science and mathematics. Grieg disliked his wife’s intellectual pursuits and actively tried to prevent her. The unhappy marriage came to an end in 1807 with the death of Grieg. Mary returned to Scotland with her sons, but sadly the infant George died the same year.

The money left by her late husband allowed Mary to pursue the intellectual interests that Greig had forbidden. She resumed her mathematical studies with the encouragement of the Church of Scotland minister and scientist John Playfair (1748-1819), who introduced her to William Wallace (1768-1843). Mary regularly wrote letters to Wallace, discussing her mathematical learnings, and he, in turn, suggested books to read. Gradually, Mary’s studies grew to include astronomy, chemistry, electricity, geography, magnetism and microscopy.

Mary practised her mathematical skills by solving problems posed in the journal of the Military College at Marlow, now known as Sandhurst. Several of her solutions featured in the Mathematical Repository under the pseudonym “A Lady”, but one particular result earned Mary a silver medal in 1811.

William Somerville c. 1840

When not studying, Mary spent time with her family, who introduced her to people of note, including her cousin Dr William Somerville (1771-1860), the inspector of the Army Medical Board. Somerville actively encouraged Mary’s ambitions and helped her learn about physical science. In 1812, Mary married William Somerville, with whom she had four children: Margaret Farquhar (1813-23), Thomas (1814-15; died in infancy), Martha Charters (1815-79) and Mary Charlotte (1817-75).

Mary’s husband was elected to the Royal Society, which boosted their reputation in society, acquainting them with many writers and artists, including J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) and Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). In 1819, the Somerville’s moved to Hanover Square, London, so that Mary’s husband could accept the position of physician at Chelsea Hospital. Meanwhile, Mary began tutoring a friend’s daughter, Ada Lovelace (1815-52). At a scientific gathering, Mary met Charles Babbage (1791-1871), who was “making his Calculating-machines”. Mary later introduced Lovelace to Babbage, which sparked a significant professional relationship.

A German governess looked after Mary’s children, allowing her the freedom to mingle in society. She became well known by scientists and mathematicians, both in England and abroad. Together, the Somervilles travelled around Europe, meeting people of note, who often returned the visit. The only thing marring this idyllic lifestyle was the death of their eldest daughter Margaret in 1823.

In 1826, Mary published her first scientific paper, The magnetic properties of the violet rays of the solar spectrum, in the Royal Society’s journal. One reader, Sir David Brewster (1781-1868), declared she was “certainly the most extraordinary woman in Europe – a mathematician of the very first rank with all the gentleness of a woman.” Subsequently, Mary received a commission from Henry Peter Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham (1778-1868), to translate the Traité de mécanique céleste (“Treatise of celestial mechanics”) by Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK). Not only did Mary painstakingly translate the lengthy treatise from French to English, she embellished it with her knowledge about the mathematics behind the workings of the solar system, saying, “I translated Laplace’s work from algebra into common language.” This translation, published under the title The Mechanism of the Heavens in 1831, made Mary famous throughout the English speaking world. Cambridge University used the publication as a textbook until the 1880s.

Mary’s translation continued to garner praise over the next few years, particularly from “many men of science”. In 1834, Mary was elected an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy, the Bristol Philosophical Institution and the Société de Physique et d’Histoire Naturelle de Genève. She also received an annual £200 civil pension from the British Crown, although spent most of her time in Italy. Despite this, the Somervilles faced a financial crisis in 1835 as the needs of their children increased as they neared adulthood. Money made from Mary’s book and future publications often saved them from bankruptcy, although Mary always maintained she only wrote for pleasure. Mary’s second book, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, published in 1834, sold over 15,000 copies, making it one of the biggest selling science books of the 19th century. In a review of the book, the polymath Rev Dr William Whewell (1794-1866) coined the word “scientist”. Until then, the term “man of science” was the usual description, but this did not befit a woman.

Mary Somerville – James Rannie Swinton

Due to her love of astronomy, Mary joined in the discussions about a hypothetical planet on the other side of Uranus. She wrote of her predictions in later editions of Connexion, which were fulfilled in 1846 by the official discovery of Neptune. Two years later, Mary published her third book, Physical Geography, the first English textbook on the subject. Mary described the structure of planet earth, including land, mountains, volcanoes, oceans, rivers and lakes. She also discussed weather, temperature, plants, animals and prospects of the human race. Setting the book apart from modern publications is Mary’s Victorian view that humans are superior to all other life forms. Physical Geography sold more copies than her previous books and earned her the Victoria Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society. A decade later, she was elected to the American Geographical and Statistical Society.

Haliomma Echinaster, a marine phosphorescence.

Although Mary Somerville continued to study and join in mathematical and scientific discussions, it was not until 1869 that she published her fourth book. Molecular and Microscopic Science took ten years to complete and on several occasions Mary admitted she regretted the subject choice. “In writing this book I made a great mistake, and repent it. Mathematics are the natural bent of my mind. If I had devoted myself exclusively to that study, I might probably have written something useful, as a new era had begun in that science.” Nonetheless, the book proved successful and contained up-to-date information about atoms and molecules, plant life, and animals. It also contained 180 illustrations, which significantly increased the cost of the publication.

Shortly before the publication of her final book, the British MP John Stuart Mill (1806-73) asked Mary to be the first to sign a petition for female suffrage. Unfortunately, the petition was unsuccessful. In her autobiography, published posthumously from many letters to and from Mary, she declared, “British laws are adverse to women.” Throughout her life, Mary felt the effects of the male-dominated world, particularly in childhood when she could not study the same subjects as her brothers. Fortunately, she also saw positive changes, such as higher education establishments opening to women.

On 29th November 1872, Mary Somerville passed away aged 91 in Naples. Her husband predeceased her by 12 years, and Mary’s daughters helped to look after her for the remainder of her life. Mary was buried in the English Cemetery in Naples, and the following year, her letters and memoirs were published under the title Personal recollections, from early life to old age, of Mary Somerville. The book includes letters to and from family, friends and notable public people, including Ada Lovelace.

Mary Somerville lived on through her work and books, some of which universities continued to use until the 20th century. She has also been honoured several times over the past century and a half, including the naming of Somerville College at the University of Oxford in 1879, one of the first women’s colleges. Also named after the first person to be called a scientist is Somerville Square in her home town Burntisland, Somerville House boarding school in Australia, and Somerville Island in Canada.

Whilst it is true that many honours come after a person’s death, Mary Somerville received some during her lifetime. In 1835, when Mary was 55 years old, a ship named Mary Somerville set sail. Belonging to Taylor, Potter & Co., of Liverpool, the ship sailed to and from India and the West Indies carrying trading goods. The ship worked for 17 years until it disappeared after departing from Saint Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean on 18th October 1852. When she did not appear at her destination, she was presumed to have foundered, and all crew were believed dead. The ship may have nearly reached the British Isles because, on 11th January 1853, a chest belonging to the Mary Somerville washed up on Saint Michael’s Mount in Cornwall.

Mary’s legacy continued into the 20th century when an asteroid discovered on 21st September 1987 was named 5771 Somerville in her memory. This asteroid, the size of a minor planet, orbits the sun once every five years and seven months (2,029 days). The small Somerville crater on the eastern side of the moon also honours Mary Somerville.

Perhaps Mary Somerville’s greatest honour to date is becoming the face of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s £10 note. In February 2016, RBS held a public vote on Facebook to decide which Scottish figure should replace the nobleman Lord Ilay (1682-1761), who had appeared on the note since 1987. Wishing to change the material of the note from paper to polymer, RSB thought the public should have a say about the design. Voters had a choice between several notable people, including Mary Somerville, James Clerk Maxwell (1831-79) and Thomas Telford (1757-1834). The new note, featuring a young Mary Somerville on one side and a picture of two otters on the reverse became legal tender in Scotland on 4th October 2017.

Google Doodle 2nd February 2020

On 2nd February 2020, Mary Somerville received her most recent honour with a Google Doodle. For 24 hours, a cartoon version of Mary sitting at a desk was the first thing people saw when visiting the Google website. Doodle designer Alyssa Winans commented that she admired Mary’s “voracious appetite for learning”. Winans hoped “this Doodle will shine a light on Mary Somerville’s contributions, and people will feel inspired to explore a broad range of interests.”

Like Winans, I hope this blog has shone a light on Mary Somerville’s contribution to science and mathematics. She wrote several successful books at a time when being a female writer was challenging. Mary Somerville was also a vocal advocate for equal rights, and it is thanks to her, or at least a reviewer of her books, that the gender-neutral term “scientist” came into the English language.


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The Lost Heroine of Astronomy

William Herschel (1738-1822) is remembered for the discovery of the planet Uranus. He discovered infrared radiation and became the first President of the Royal Astronomical Society. He is also the older brother of Caroline Herschel, the first female scientist to receive a salary, the first woman in England to hold a government position, and the discoverer of several comets. Yet, despite these achievements, Caroline is rarely mentioned in history books. Her brother was the more important of the siblings because he was a man. So, let’s rediscover this lost heroine of astronomy.

Caroline Lucretia Herschel was the eighth of ten children born on 16th March 1750 in Hanover, Germany, to oboist Issak Herschel and Anna Ilse Moritzen. Not all the children survived infancy, and those that did received a basic education at home. Issak made more effort to teach his sons than his two surviving daughters, who learned little more than reading and writing. Her father never thought Caroline would amount to much, particularly after she caught typhus at the age of ten. The illness stunted her growth, never growing taller than 4 feet 3 inches, and affected her eyesight.

Typhus put an end to Caroline’s regular education, and her mother did not expect her to find a husband. She insisted Caroline train as a house servant, although Issak continued to teach his daughter in secret. Following her father’s death in 1771, Caroline’s older brothers William and Alexander invited her to move with them to Bath in England, where they worked as musicians. They thought Caroline could work with them as a singer and perform in churches. It took some time to persuade their mother to let Caroline travel to England, but she eventually joined her brothers in August 1772.

As well as singing, Caroline looked after William’s household at 19 New King Street, Bath, which is now the location of the Herschel Museum of Astronomy. Caroline found it difficult to mix in society but soon gained the opportunity to continue her education. Caroline’s brothers taught her arithmetic and to play the harpsichord, as well as regular singing lessons. She became the lead singer at William’s oratorio concerts, although only agreed to perform if her brother conducted. She gained a reputation for her voice after singing a solo in Handel’s Messiah in 1778, but her reluctance to work with other conductors led to a decline in her singing career.

Alongside infrequent public performances, Caroline focused her attentions on looking after her brother’s home. William left his music career behind, choosing to focus on his passion for astronomy. Whilst William studied, Caroline did “what a well-trained puppy dog would have done, that is to say, […] what he commanded…” As time went on, Caroline grew interested in her brother’s work and shared his excitement for the stars. During the 1770s, William built several telescopes, grinding the lenses by himself rather than purchasing inferior ones. It was with one of these that William discovered the planet Uranus on 13th March 1781.

In 1782, Caroline and William agreed to a final musical performance, after which William accepted the position of court astronomer to King George III (1738-1820). They moved to a shabby cottage in the village of Datchet, from where William could be on hand for the king at Windsor Castle. Her brother wished Caroline to be his assistant, which involved spending hours polishing mirrors, positioning telescopes and recording William’s astronomical observations. Initially, Caroline hated this work but soon grew to enjoy it after William asked her to “mind the heavens” with a telescope for interesting objects.

Caroline started keeping a record book in which she noted all her observations. These she compared with the Messier catalogue, a list of 110 nebulae and faint star clusters compiled by French astronomer Charles Messier (1730-1817). On 26th February 1783, Caroline spotted a nebula that did not appear in the catalogue. After more observation, she discovered a dwarf elliptical galaxy, now known as Messier 110, orbiting the Andromeda Galaxy. Although the discovery was recorded in Caroline’s name, William did not want to miss out on future discoveries and took over the searching, relegating his sister to note and measurements taker.

Noting his sister’s disappointment, William constructed a telescope for Caroline to use, although he still required her to take notes. Every night, William shouted out his sightings, which required Caroline to quickly look them up in either the Messier catalogue or the Catalogus Britannicus. The latter was a 3,000-star catalogue compiled by the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed (1646-1719). Unfortunately, neither list suited the Herschel sibling’s work, so Caroline created her own catalogue.

On 1st August 1786, while her brother was away, Caroline borrowed William’s telescope to sweep the sky, where she spotted an unknown comet. Over the next eleven years, she discovered eight new comets, although only five appeared in the Royal Society’s journal Philosophical Transactions under her name. Caroline also observed a comet that the French astronomer Pierre Méchain (1744-1804) had spotted a decade before, yet the Society named it after the third person to detect it, Johann Franz Encke (1791-1865). Unlike Caroline and Méchain, the German astronomer calculated that the comet orbits the Earth once every 3.3 years. Thus, the comet is known as Encke’s Comet.

After Caroline spotted her first comet, William presented her to the royal family at Windsor Castle. For some time, Caroline was known as the first woman to discover a comet, although later evidence proves this incorrect. Maria Kirch (1670-1720) is officially the first woman to spot a comet, but this knowledge remained hidden for many years because her husband, Gottfried Kirch (1639-1710), claimed it under his name. Nonetheless, Caroline’s reputation grew, and she reported her second find directly to the Astronomer Royal, the Reverend Doctor Nevil Maskelyne (1732-1811).

Caroline became familiar with several well-known members of the Royal Society, including its president, Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), who rose to fame after accompanying Captain James Cook (1728-79) to Australia. Caroline announced the rest of her comet discoveries directly to Banks, including her eighth and final comet, which she observed on 6th August 1797 without the aid of a telescope. During this time, Caroline received an annual salary of £50 (equivalent to £6,400 in 2021) from the king, making her the first woman in England with an official government position. She was also the first paid woman in the field of astronomy.

Both Caroline and William continued to struggle to cross-reference their findings with Flamsteed’s catalogue, frequently resorting to Caroline’s previous notes instead. Other astronomers also faced similar difficulties, so William recommended his sister write a cross-index for all to use. The project, which took Caroline 20 months to complete, resulted in Catalogue of Stars, Taken from Mr. Flamsteed’s Observations Contained in the Second Volume of the Historia Coelestis, and Not Inserted in the British Catalogue, published by the Royal Society in 1798. This new catalogue included all the stars listed by Flamsteed and 560 new findings. Unfortunately, rules forbade women from writing scientific documents, so the catalogue appeared under William’s name.

The payment for the new catalogue supplemented Caroline’s income, affording her more independence. Her brother’s marriage in 1788 to a widow named Mary forced Caroline to move into external lodgings, but she still returned to the main house to work with her brother. Unfortunately, William denied her a copy of the key to his observatory and workroom, meaning she could never work alone. Caroline destroyed her journals from this period, so her true feelings are unknown, but biographers suggest Caroline felt bitter and jealous of William’s wife, the usurper of her position in the household. On the other hand, French geologist Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond (1741-1819), who befriended the siblings, claimed they worked well together. Caroline also looked after the house and observatory whenever William was away. Letters sent to and from Mary in later life also indicate a loving relationship, often writing fondly about her nephew John (1791-1871).

Although Caroline had restricted access to her brother’s observatory, she continued to make independent discoveries and contributed to many astronomical projects. In August 1799, Caroline received an invitation to spend a week in Greenwich as a guest of the Royal Family, which she readily accepted. Despite being a woman, Caroline’s fame grew, and many respected her as the true author of the Catalogue of Stars and discoverer of comets.

When William passed away in 1822 after a long illness, his grief-stricken sister returned to Hanover, Germany. Caroline later admitted she regretted leaving England, but she continued her astronomical studies from her new home. Using her brother’s notes, Caroline verified William’s work and produced another nebulae catalogue to aid her nephew John in his aspirations to follow in his father’s footsteps. Due to this work and the determination to write her memoirs, Caroline made no further original discoveries in the night sky. Nonetheless, she continued to attend events with other scientific luminaries and remained a respected astronomer.

In 1828, Caroline received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society for her “recent reduction, to January, 1800, of the [2,500] Nebulæ discovered by her illustrious brother, which may be considered as the completion of a series of exertions probably unparalleled either in magnitude or importance in the annals of astronomical labour.” She was the first woman to receive such an honour and remained the only person of her sex until 1996 when Vera Rubin (1928-2016) received the medal for her work on galaxy rotation rates.

In 1835, the Royal Astronomical Society elected Caroline an Honorary Member. She shared the honour of the first female member with the Scottish scientist Mary Somerville (1780-1872). Three years later, Caroline achieved the same status at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. At the age of 96, Caroline also received recognition from Frederick William IV of Prussia (1795-1861). “In recognition of the valuable services rendered to Astronomy by you, as the fellow-worker of your immortal brother, Sir William Herschel, by discoveries, observations, and laborious calculations,” Caroline accepted another Gold Medal for Science.

“The eyes of her who is glorified here below turned to the starry heavens.” This is the inscription on Caroline Herschel’s gravestone in the cemetery of the Gartengemeinde, where she was buried after passing away peacefully on 9th January 1848, at the age of 97. Forty years later, the Austrian astronomer Johann Palisa (1848-1925) named a comet after Caroline’s middle name Lucretia, proving her reputation lived on after her death. Two of her independent discoveries also share her name, Caroline’s Cluster and Caroline’s Rose, as well as a crater on the moon. Yet after this, Caroline Herschel’s fame faded away until the second half of the 20th century.

Caroline Herschel reappeared in 1968 when feminist poet Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) penned Planetarium, subtitled, “Thinking of Caroline Herschel … astronomer, sister of William; and others.” One verse of the poem refers to “a woman ‘in the snow among the Clocks and instruments or measuring the ground with poles’ in her 98 years to discover 8 comets”, which presumably refers to Caroline’s work, although she passed away just short of her 98th birthday. Yet, Rich’s work is only loosely inspired by Caroline Herschel and does not highlight her achievements or reveal anything about her life.

During the 1970s, feminist artist Judy Chicago (b.1939) honoured Caroline with a table setting in The Dinner Party. This installation artwork, which is on display in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, New York, symbolises the work of 39 women throughout history. The artwork consists of tables in a triangle formation, each side representing a period of time. Caroline Herschel sits between Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) and the Native American woman Sacagawea (1788-1812) on the American to the Women’s Revolution side of the table. Another side represents women from prehistory to the Roman Empire, for instance, Boadicea and the Hindu goddess Kali. The third side seats women from the beginnings of Christianity to the Reformation, including Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), Hildegarde of Bingen (1098-1179) and Elizabeth I (1533-1603).

Each place setting in The Dinner Party features an embroidered cloth featuring the sitter’s name and images to represent their accomplishments. Upon this sits a napkin, cutlery, a goblet, and a decorated plate. Chicago painted an eye in the centre of Caroline Herschel’s plate to represent the astronomer looking through a telescope. The tablecloth features stars, clouds, sun and eight comets.

Whilst Judy Chicago recognised the talents and achievements of 39 women, including Caroline Herschel, the artwork does little more than introduce their names and hint at their career. To fully appreciate these forgotten women, people need to read, learn and talk about them to keep them alive. In Ancient Egypt, a soul never died whilst someone remained alive to speak its name. Although this belief is not a part of modern religions, the premise is the same. Without educating others about historical figures, they will metaphorically die, just like Herschel almost did before poets and artists like Rich and Chicago resurrected her. Fortunately, several books concerning Caroline Herschel have appeared during the 21st century, so her memory continues to live.

Last year, Argentina released several satellites named after women of science, including Caroline Herschel, and in 2016, Google remembered her 266th birthday with a “Google Doodle”. Other than this, little else has helped return Caroline to her former glory. Famous during her lifetime, Caroline’s achievements have since gone unnoticed. This is largely due to society’s attitudes towards women in the 18th and 19th century. Unable to publish her work under her own name, Caroline’s brother took the credit. Whilst this was not a problem at the time, because friends and acquaintances knew it was Caroline’s work, the people of the future wrongly assumed William Herschel made the discoveries. In the 21st century, it is time for women of the past to reclaim their achievements and receive the same respect as male figures.


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The Enchantress of Number

Contemporary computers have a history that dates back five millennia to the abacus. Great minds, such as the Greek mathematician Archimedes (c.287-212 BC), developed theories that led to modern calculus and, eventually, to the invention of the computer. The devices we are familiar with today emerged during the 20th century, but the first “computer programmer” lived a century earlier. Not only does that surprise many, but the gender of this programmer also raises eyebrows. Augusta Ada King, the Countess of Lovelace, or “The Enchantress of Number”, as the polymath Charles Babbage (1791-1871) called her, went against social norms to study mathematics and receive the accolade of the first computer programmer.

Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, circa 1840,

Generally, but incorrectly, known as Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer is gradually earning recognition in the 21st century. In 2009, the non-profit organisation The Ada Initiative marked the second Tuesday of October as the annual Ada Lovelace Day. The goal of this event is to “raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering, and maths,” particularly those written out of history. Whilst their achievements are significant, it is also important to learn about their lives and the obstacles they overcame as women to fulfil their ambitions.

The Honorable Augusta Ada Byron was born on 10th December 1815 in London to Lord and Lady Byron. Lord George Gordon Byron (1788-1824), the renowned poet and politician, expected a “glorious boy” and did not hide his disappointment when Lady Byron gave birth to a girl. He named his daughter after his sister Augusta Leigh (1783-1851), but insisted on calling her by her middle name Ada. Just over a month after the birth, Lord Byron commanded his wife to leave and set about organising a legal separation.

Ada Byron, aged four

Happy to escape from her immoral husband, Lady Anne Isabella Noel Byron (1792-1860), moved to her parents home in Leicestershire with her 5-week old daughter. She refused to let Byron see his child, not that he protested, and Ada never knew her father. Although Ada lived with her mother, she did not have a loving relationship and spent the majority of her childhood in the care of her grandmother, Lady Judith Milbanke. When in public, Lady Byron acted like the perfect mother, but in private, she did not even mention Ada’s name. In a letter to her mother, Lady Byron wrote, “I talk to it for your satisfaction, not my own, and shall be very glad when you have it under your own.”

Ada was a sickly child, often confined to her bed due to migraine-like headaches. At 14, she contracted measles, which paralysed her legs. In the year that followed, Ada spent her time in bed but kept herself amused by reading about and practising mathematics. Although usually reserved for male students, Ada’s mother insisted she receive lessons in maths and science. Lady Byron feared her daughter becoming an “insane” poet like her ex-husband.

During one of her long bouts of illness, Ada dreamed of flying. Using both her imagination and logic, Ada studied the anatomy of birds, analysing the right proportions between wings and body. She even went as far as to consider suitable materials and wrote about her experiments in a book called Flyology. Ada also envisioned a winged flying machine containing a steam engine for power. Little did she know that 76 years later, the Wright Brothers would take their first flight in a similar construction.

Ada Byron, aged seventeen

At 16, Ada regained the use of her legs, although she relied on crutches for some time. Evidence suggests she was fully mobile by the age of 18 when she attempted to elope with a male tutor. Since Lady Byron covered up the scandal, the name of the tutor is unknown. Ada had many tutors for mathematics and science, including the English clergyman William Frend (1757-1841) and British physician William King (1786-1865). Augustus De Morgan (1806-71), a mathematician and logician, encouraged Ada’s passion for numbers and noted she had the potential to become “an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence.”

Ada’s favourite tutor was Mary Somerville (1780-1872), the Scottish researcher and scientific author, who introduced her to many notable people, including Charles Babbage, Michael Faraday (1791-1867) and Charles Dickens (1812-70). She also met lots of people at Court after she was presented at the age of 17, where she met her future husband Lord William King-Noel, 8th Baron King (1805-93).

Intrigued by Ada’s mathematical prowess, Babbage invited her to view the prototype of his Difference Engine: a type of calculating machine that is described today as the first computer. Fascinated by his work, Ada persuaded Somerville to take her to visit Babbage as often as possible. Ada liked to watch Babbage work while taking notes but soon started to voice suggestions.

Portrait of Ada by British painter Margaret Sarah Carpenter (1836)

Meanwhile, Ada’s social life continued at Court, where she attended many functions and events. Enamoured by her brilliant mind, men considered her “a popular belle of the season”. She caught the eye of the 8th Baron King, whom she married on 8th July 1835, thus becoming Lady King. They honeymooned in Somerset and ten months later welcomed a son, Byron (1836-62). The following year, Ada gave birth to a daughter, Anne Isabella (1837-1917), but became unwell with “a tedious and suffering illness, which took months to cure.” Her third child, Ralph Gordon (1839-1906), was born on 2nd July 1839.

In 1838, Ada learned she was a descendant of the Barons Lovelace, of Hurley in the County of Berks, the last of whom passed away in 1736. The Peerage of England decided to revive the title, making Ada’s husband the Earl of Lovelace and Ada the Countess of Lovelace. It is due to this title that Ada is often mistakenly referred to as Ada Lovelace.

After the birth of her youngest child, Ada returned to working with Babbage. In 1842, the English scientist Charles Wheatstone (1802-75) commissioned the countess to translate an academic paper from French into English. This was a transcript of Babbage’s talk at the University of Turin written by Luigi Menabrea (1809-96), the future Prime Minister of Italy. The papers introduced Babbage’s proposal for another machine, the Analytical Engine, which he described as a simpler version of the Difference Engine.

Lovelace’s diagram from “note G”, the first published computer algorithm

As well as transcribing Menabrea’s transcript, Ada added notes to the article. She explained what made the hypothetical Analytical Engine different from the Difference Engine and demonstrated how the machine could calculate a series of Bernoulli numbers. These numbers are the result of a complicated formula that only the elitist mathematical brains could fathom. After writing both an explanation and a demonstration of the Analytical Engine’s potential output, Ada’s notes were three times longer than the original article. Although the Analytical Engine has never been built, Ada’s work is regarded as the world’s first published computer programme.

Ada also argued that “The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis, but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths.” In other words, a machine or computer can only work with the input provided by its maker and cannot surpass the knowledge or intelligence of the collective human race. This idea computer scientists continue to debate today during their strive to develop Artificial Intelligence.

As well as numbers, Ada believed the Analytical Engine had the potential to “act upon other things besides number”, for instance, music. Babbage’s machines only used numbers, but Ada believed these digits could represent other entities, such as music tones and letters. The Analytical Engine was never constructed, although British software engineer John Graham-Cumming is determined to build it, so Ada’s theory has not been tested. Yet, 100 years after Ada expressed the idea, computer scientists developed the modern computer using a similar approach.

Despite being a woman, many mathematicians respected Ada, particularly Michael Faraday, who described himself as a supporter of Ada’s work. Unfortunately, science journals published Sketch of the Analytical Engine containing Ada’s translations and appendices under her initials rather than her full name. For decades after her death, the initials hid Ada’s true identity, and many assumed the mathematician was a man.

Painting of Lovelace seated at a piano, by Henry Phillips (1852)

In 1852, Ada was diagnosed with uterine cancer, with which she suffered in agony for several months. During this time, her mother forbade visits from friends, including Babbage, and encouraged her daughter to turn to religion. On 30th August, Ada confessed something to her husband, which upset him enough to abandon her bedside for the remainder of her life. To date, no one knows what Ada said to cause such a reaction. She eventually passed away on 27th November 1852 at the age of 36. As per her final strange request, she was laid to rest next to her father, a man she never met, at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire.

After her death, people remembered Ada more for a series of scandals rather than her mathematical genius. During the 1840s, several rumours of extra-marital affairs surrounded Ada, but more scandalous was her love of gambling. After forming a syndicate with her (male) friends, Ada lost more than £3,000 by betting on horse races. In 1851, she attempted to create a mathematical formula to guarantee successful bets but failed and lost thousands of pounds.

Rumours of Ada’s romantic affairs resurfaced after the reading of her will. Rather than leaving the Byron family heirlooms to her children, she left them to John Crosse, the son of British scientist Andrew Crosse (1784-1855). Most correspondences between Ada and John were destroyed after her death, so the truth of their relationship will never come to light.

Ada’s eldest son Byron became the 12th Baron Wentworth after his grandmother’s death in 1860. Unfortunately, he did not have long to enjoy it before his sudden death two years later, aged 26. The barony passed to Ada’s youngest child, Ralph, who also became the 2nd Earl of Lovelace after his father’s death in 1893. Ralph avoided public life as much as possible and spent his 22nd year in Iceland learning about Icelandic and Norse literature. He also enjoyed mountain climbing and became an accomplished linguist. Rather than becoming a mathematician like his mother, Ralph preferred to write and, shortly before his death, published Astarte: A Fragment of Truth concerning George Gordon Byron, first Lord Byron, which divulged his grandfather’s incestuous nature.

Lady Anne Blunt, in Bedouin dress, and her favourite riding mare, Kasida 1900

Lady Anne Blunt, Ada’s middle child, married the poet Wilfrid Blunt (1840-1922), with whom she co-founded the horse breeding firm Crabbet Arabian Stud. She travelled extensively around the Middle East purchasing Arabian horses, many of which she brought home to England despite her husband’s protests that the horses preferred warmer climates. After Anne’s death, her only child, Judith Blunt-Lytton (1873-1957), continued the horse breeding business. A descendant, John Lytton (b.1950), is currently a crossbencher in the House of Lords.

Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, did not regain her reputation as an extraordinary mathematician and computer programmer until the 1970s with the production of Childe Byron by playwright Romulus Linney (1930-2011). Unfortunately, this play focused more on the non-existent relationship between Ada and Lord Byron than on her career. Ada’s mathematical genius came to the fore in William Gibson (b.1948) and Bruce Sterling’s (b.1954) 1990 steampunk novel The Difference Engine, and in the 1997 film Conceiving Ada. Other plays and books include Ada and the EngineThe Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, and The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency. The Countess of Lovelace also appeared as a character in an episode of Doctor Who in 2020.

An illustration inspired by the A. E. Chalon portrait created for the Ada Initiative

Dying at such a young age, Ada did not have the opportunity to receive praise for her work, nor did she know how much it would change the future. As a woman, it is unlikely she would have gained adequate recognition at the time, as is the case for many of her sex. She finally received the long due commemoration over a century after her death. In 1980, the United States Department of Defense named their computer language “Ada” in her memory, and the following year, the Association for Women in Computing inaugurated its Ada Lovelace Award. Also named after the mathematician is the Lovelace Medal for the British Computer Society, Ada College in Tottenham Hale, the Ada Initiative, and the Ada Developers Company.

Blue plaque to Ada Lovelace in St. James’s Square, London

In November 2020, Trinity College Dublin announced the plan to add four busts of famous women to their library, which until now has contained only statues of men. Ada Countess of Lovelace will make history once again alongside Rosalind Franklin (1920-58), Augusta Gregory (1852-1932), and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97).

It is a great shame that Ada Countess of Lovelace died before she could develop more groundbreaking theories in computer science. It is an even greater shame that, for a hundred years, her gender was hidden behind her initials, leading thousands to believe technology a man’s science. Although she did not build a machine or get the chance to test her hypothetical programme, Ada’s genius ideas greatly assisted the development of modern computers.

“They say behind every great man there’s a woman,” and this is indeed true in the professional relationship between Babbage and Lovelace. Ada’s “poetical science” mindset asked questions about Babbage’s machines, and she developed visions that none of the top scientists in the industry could imagine. Whereas they saw what was in front of them, Ada realised the potential of such machines and, as we can confirm today, she was right.


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