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ada lovelace, august ada byron
Stefan Rousseau, Pool/AP
Portrait of August Ada Byron, Countess of
Lovelace, by Margaret Carpenter.

6 Unsung Women

April 14, 2010
by Colleen Brondou
History is full of women who never got fair credit for their brilliant ideas, heroic deeds or extraordinary work, often due to prejudice, discrimination or the social mores of their time. As Women’s History Month begins, take a look at six unsung women who deserve to be more widely celebrated and praised.

Ada Lovelace, Creator of the World’s First Computer Programs

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Augusta Ada Byron, now known as Ada Lovelace, was the only child of the poet Lord Byron and Lady Annabella Byron. Just five weeks after Ada’s birth, Annabella separated from Lord Byron and was granted sole custody of her daughter. Fearing that her daughter would follow in Lord Byron’s footsteps and become a poet, Annabella raised her daughter to be a mathematician and scientist.

In 1833, Ada met Charles Babbage, a wealthy amateur mathematician who invented the ophthalmoscope and two computer-like devices: the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine.

A decade later, Ada translated a memoir written about the Analytical Engine and added notes on a method for calculating Bernoulli numbers with the Engine—“the first computer programme,” the Ada Lovelace Day Web site explains. Although the machine was never actually built, and the calculations were never made, Ada also wrote “the very first description of a computer and of software.”

Ada died young, at the age of 36, and didn’t have the chance to further her theories in computing. In 2009, however, the first Ada Lovelace Day was held on March 24 to “celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science.”

Read a full profile of Ada Lovelace. >>

Catharine Littlefield Greene, Conceived the Idea for the Cotton Gin

“Who invented the cotton gin?” on history quizzes usually is answered, “Eli Whitney.” But as the UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography (2003) points out, “[T]his answer may not be correct.” Catharine Littlefield Greene, wife of Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene, may have been the brain behind the idea.

After her husband’s death, Greene raised her five children and managed her family’s plantation. In 1892, she rented a room to Eli Whitney, a Yale College graduate, and employed him as a handyman around the house.

Greene explained the process of cotton farming to Whitney, and how time-consuming it was to clean green-seed cotton. “Tradition holds that Greene suggested that Whitney build a machine that could clean seed cotton,” the Encyclopedia of World Biography explains. “Perhaps her prompting went only that far, or perhaps she provided a more detailed suggestion, may be even a rudimentary design.”

According to Matilda Joslyn Gage, in an 1883 pamphlet entitled “Woman as Inventor,” it was indeed Greene, not Whitney, who should be credited with the cotton gin. “Mrs. Greene conceived the idea of such a machine, and intrusted its construction to the hands of Eli Whitney, then boarding with her,” Gage wrote. “Within ten days from the first conception of Mrs. Greene’s ideas, a small working model was completed, so perfect in its construction that all succeeding gins have been based upon it.”

Read a full profile of Catharine Littlefield Greene. >>

Anna Ella Carroll, Responsible for Crucial Civil War Military Strategy

As the eldest of eight children, Anna Ella Carroll was closely trained and educated by her father, the governor of Maryland in 1830 and 1831. The young Carroll “gradually gained entry into the male world of politics,” according to the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, Carroll responded by freeing her slaves, and writing letters and news articles to promote her pro-union beliefs.

She also played a critical role in the course of the Civil War. Matilda Joslyn Gage, writing in “Who Planned the Tennessee Campaign of 1862?” argued that Carroll, not General Ulysses S. Grant, was responsible for this important military campaign.

Sally Roesch Wagner, in “Matilda Joslyn Gage: forgotten feminist,” recounts Gage’s writing on the event. “Lincoln asked that the matter be kept quiet, Gage documented, as he feared that the union troops would be demoralized by the knowledge that this brilliant strategy was the product of a civilian – ‘and that civilian a woman’, according to a top Congressional leader quoted by Gage.”

Read a full profile of Anna Ella Carroll. >>

Next: 3 More Unsung Women >>
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