Today is Ada Lovelace Day; A day of blogging that celebrates women in technology. Even though it has little to do with the usual content of this blog, I wanted to take part. My current job would not be available to me, were it not for the pioneers who have helped clear the way. Whilst many will choose to focus on those who have contributed to the computer sciences, women’s earliest roles in science and technology were in ‘observational’ sciences, in helping their husbands and fathers with experiments at home, in botany, or in female medicine. To recognise this, and in keeping with my own interests, I have chosen a very early example…
Caroline Lucretia Herschel was one of the very first female astronomers, and one of the first women to really achieve recognition for her work in science. Born in 1750 she worked alongside her brother William, and independently, disocvering new objects in the night sky and developing ever more powerful telescopes.
Her early work was almost completely in aiding William, and she stated that the assistance she provided him, hindered her own work and desire to explore. William soon discovered Venus and was enlisted as the King’s Astronomer to George III. Caroline continued to help him in his work discovering the true shape of the Milky Way, the icey poles of Mars and infrared radiation. They worked closely together until he was married and a strained relationship with his new wife gave her the oppurtunity to practice on her own before reconciling her relationship with William.
Caroline discovered eight comets, the dwarf galaxy Messier 110 (a companion of Andromeda, see above) and in 1798 published a Catalogue of Stars recognising errors in Flamsteed’s previous index. When her brother died, Caroline did not stop, producing a catalogue of nebulae and continuing his work.
Caroline’s hard, innovative, work was widely recognised and she was the first woman to recieve a Gold Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society (another was not awarded until 1996). She was also to become one of the first female honorary member’s of the society, along with Mary Somerville and of the Royal Irish Academy. In 1935 a small moon crater was named in her honour.
She died in 1848, a full 160 years ago. In every way she was a true early pioneer in technology, who overcame the politics of her era to be fully recognised for her achievements.