From computer programming to nuclear fission to the paper bag machine, it's time to stop erasing these women from their great works.
Tim Murphy and Tasneem RajaOct. 15, 2013 6:00 AM
October 15 is Ada Lovelace Day, named for the world's first computer programmer and dedicated to promoting women in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math. A Victorian-era mathematical genius, Lovelace was the first to describe how computing machines could solve math problems, write new forms of music, and much more, if you gave them instructions in a language they could understand. Of course, over the ensuing 100-plus years, dudes have been lining up to push her out of the picture (more on that below).
Lovelace is hardly the only woman to be erased from the history of her own work. Here's a quick look at eight women whose breakthroughs were marginalized by their peers.
(This isn't a complete list, by tragically epic degrees. Please use the comments section to rail about everyone we missed.)
Rosalind Franklin Wikimedia Commons
Rosalind Franklin, discovery of the DNA double helix: Watson and Crick's famed article in Nature on the discovery of the DNA double-helix structure, which would win them a Nobel Prize, buries a mention of Rosalind Franklin's role in the footnotes. But Franklin, a British biophysicist who had honed a technique to closely observe molecules using X-ray diffraction, was the first to capture a photographic image of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, known as Photo 51. An estranged male colleague of Franklin's at King's College showed her photograph to competitors Watson and Crick, without her permission. Photo 51 became crucial in shaping their thesis, but it would take Watson 40 years to admit this publicly. Franklin, known as the "dark lady of DNA," shifted her focus to the study of RNA, and made important strides before her death from cancer in 1958, four years before Watson and Crick received the Nobel.
Ada Lovelace, computer programming: The daughter of Lord Byron, Lovelace was steered toward math by her mother, who feared her daughter would follow in her father’s "mad, bad, and dangerous" literary footsteps. Luckily, she loved the subject, and remained devoted throughout her brief life—she died in 1852 at age 36, soon after an ambitious, proto-Moneyball attempt to beat the odds at horse racing by developing mathematical models to help place her bets.
Ada Lovelace Wikimedia Commons
When she was barely 20, she started collaborating with the inventor Charles Babbage at the University of London on his "Analytical Engine," an early model of a computer. In 1843, she added extensive notes of her own to a paper on Babbage's machine, detailing how the Engine could be fed step-by-step instructions to do complicated math, and trained to work not only with numbers but also words and symbols "to compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent."
The notes are considered the first descriptions of what we now call algorithms and computer programming, and for decades, historians have argued over whether Lovelace came up with them herself, or Babbage was somehow the real author. "Ada was as mad as a hatter, and contributed little more to the 'Notes' than trouble," writes one historian, and a "manic depressive with the most amazing delusions about her own talents." But Babbage's own memoir suggests she deserved credit for the "the algebraic working out of the different problems," and more recently she's been honored with, among other things, a British medal of honor, a Google Doodle, a tunnel boring machine in London, and her own annual celebration. In 2011, the Ada Initiative was founded to help promote women in computer science and open-source technology.
Margaret Knight, paper bag machine: The paper bag machine, which is exactly what it sounds like, doesn't get as much love as the nuclear fission or the computer, and it probably shouldn't—it's a convenient but hardly breathtaking way to carry sandwiches. But Knight's invention, in 1868, is notable for the fight she went through to get credit. Her patent designs were quickly stolen by a man, who sought to have the patent issued in his name by arguing that a woman was incapable of such a breakthrough. It took three years, but Knight eventually won the case in court.
Margaret Knight's paper bag machine Wikimedia Commons
Elizabeth Magie, Monopoly: Charles Darrow, an unemployed heating salesman, traditionally gets credit for America's favorite homage to extortionist landlords. But as PBS discovered in 2004, the board game actually had its start nearly three decades earlier when Magie, an acolyte of the economist Henry George, secured to the patent to The Landlord's Game. For her efforts in creating the country's most popular board game she received just $500 from Parker Brothers.
From Magie's original designs Wikimedia Commons
Judy Malloy, hypertext fiction: A self-taught computer programmer, conceptual artist, and single mom working at a tech company in the early days of Silicon Valley, Malloy self-published a short story called Uncle Roger in 1986. It's a wry take on California tech culture through the eyes of an eccentric computer chip salesman, and at the time, the experience of reading Uncle Roger was totally new. It lived online (and still does), and the reader clicked through fragments of the story in whatever order they chose, twisting and reshaping the narrative along the way. Malloy created an elaborate new database system to tell her story, with 32 UNIX shells and a sophisticated search engine for its time. But in 1992, a New York Times book critic crowned the young novelist Michael Joyce's afternoon, a story as the "granddaddy of full-length hypertext fictions," though Uncle Roger came first and Malloy's piece was acclaimed by the emerging digital art community as the earliest notable example of the form.
Lise Meitner Wikimedia Commons
Lise Meitner, nuclear fission: A student of Max Plank and the first German woman to hold a professorship at a German university, Meitner was forced to flee the country because of her Jewish ancestry. But she continued corresponding with her research partner, Otto Hahn, from Scandinavia, and in 1938 they first articulated the idea of nuclear fission, which five years later would give rise to the atomic bomb. But Hahn left her name off his landmark paper, and when the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences recognized the breakthrough in 1944, they gave the prize in chemistry to Hahn. Meitner eventually earned a more exclusive honor, though; in 1994 she was honored with an element—meitnerium, or Mt on the Periodic Table.
Candace Pert, opioid receptor: When Pert, then a graduate student at Johns Hopkins, protested that her professor, Dr. Solomon Snyder, had received an award for her discovery of the receptor allows opiates to lock into the brain, Snyder's response was curt: "That's how the game is played." Pert protested in a formal letter to the award committee ("As a graduate student who played a key role in initiating the research and following it up") and then, having thoroughly revolutionized neuroscience, got back to work. She was working toward a more effective treatment of Alzheimer's when she died in September.
Martha Coston, signal flares: Coston was officially listed as "administratix" on the 1961 patent that revolutionized communication between US Navy vessels. Official credit for the invention went to her husband, Benjamin Franklin Coston—never mind that he had been dead for the 10 years she had worked with pyrotechnic engineers to turn his idea into a reality. (She received a patent in her own name, 12 years later, for a modified system.)
Congratulations, Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.): You just said the most ridiculous thing anyone in the House of Representatives has uttered about the debt ceiling in…at least a few days. Griffith, asked by the Capitol Hill daily The Hill about the urgency of raising the debt ceiling, suggested the nation might be better off if it defaulted—even if that triggered a new recession and perhaps a global economic crisis—than if it continued to spend money at the current rate. He's not the only Republican congressman to make this claim (Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) suggested a default would calm global markets). But Griffith's spin was, to put it charitably, unique:
We have to make a decision that's right long-term for the United States, and what may be distasteful, unpleasant and not appropriate in the short run may be something that has to be done. I will remind you that this group of renegades that decided that they wanted to break from the crown in 1776 did great damage to the economy of the colonies. They created the greatest nation and the best form of government, but they did damage to the economy in the short run.
This is an absolutely backward understanding of US history. Breaking away from Great Britain was indeed a hugely disruptive economic event—so much so that it almost proved to be the nation's undoing. States were swimming in debt and unable to pay soldiers, who in turn staged open rebellions, which, in turn, prompted politicians to get together to come up with a better governing document.
The central problem was that the nation had basically no access to credit, because it was $77 million in debt with no real means to pay it back. (It owed about $12 million of that to foreign creditors.) The solution, as outlined in Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton's First Report on the Public Credit, was to absorb all state-level debts (totaling about $25 million), issue new bonds to fund the federal government and allow it to start borrowing money again, and then raise tariffs to pay off the debt.
Griffith's right that the revolution caused an economic mess, but he should've read the next chapter in his history book—America didn't get out of that economic mess until it had demonstrated to foreign creditors it was good on its word. Whether that's still the case is up to Griffith and his colleagues.
"It's not that football has grown especially hard, it's that society has grown soft," argues one conservative author.
Tim MurphyOct. 13, 2013 11:50 AM
What did you do in the war on football, daddy?
According to a guest speaker at this weekend's Values Voters Summit in Washington, DC, the NFL's concussion crisis is a myth cooked up by overzealous researchers and a willing media, the nation's most popular sport is under attack from an increasingly soft population, and President Obama might have turned out differently—and smoked a lot less pot—if he'd found the structure and discipline of the gridiron growing up. Welcome to the newest front in the culture war: the War on Football.
Football is, as they say here in DC, having a bit of a moment right now. Last week, male college football analysts griped about the appointment of a woman, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to the sport's first playoff committee. President Obama became the latest major figure to suggest that the Washington NFL franchise to change its name to something less racist. And on Tuesday, PBS aired a new report on the sport's concussion crisis, touting research that connects football-related head trauma to long-term brain damage and early death. It was only a matter of time before football joined abortion, porn, and radical Islam as topics of discussion at the annual social conservative soiree.
South Carolina state Sen. Tom Davis (left) and Gen. James Longstreet.
South Carolina state Sen. Tom Davis is a leading light of his state's Republican party, and a favorite among tea party conservatives who hope he reconsiders his decision not to mount a primary challenge to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). He also has some interesting thoughts about the Civil War.
A tipster passes along this photo, from Davis' Facebook page this week (it has since been taken down), featuring a man standing next to a barrier he had moved to the side of the road at Gettysburg National Battlefield Park, allowing vehicles to access the site of the 1863 battle. Davis' comment was brief: "If only Longstreet had employed this flanking maneuver."
Sen. Tom Davis/Facebook
Davis' comment refers to confederate General James Longstreet, one of Robert E. Lee's top generals at Gettysburg, who on the second day of the battle was slow to act on a directive to attack the Union's vulnerable left flank. The theory is that if Longstreet had employed the flanking maneuver, he could have rolled through the Union lines and scored a crushing victory that would have turned the tide of the war in favor of the dysfunctional breakaway republic united by a doctrine of white supremacy. If only!
Republicans in the House of Representatives have had a consistent strategy during the government shutdown: Go small. In a rare display of unity from a fractured caucus, GOPers have passed a series of small bills that would fund agencies like the National Park Service and National Institutes of Health, while continuing to oppose any larger continuing resolution to fund the federal government. The idea was simple: Give Democrats the choice of either splitting ranks, or casting votes against popular (and emotionally resonant) programs.
"I say to Harry Reid in the Senate, bring this up for a vote!" said Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) at a press conference touting the House's bill to fund NIH cancer clinics. "Don't take hope away from those families! Don't take hope away from those moms!"
But House Republicans have had company. Some two dozen Democrats have voted for all or most of the nine Republican continuing resolutions, joining their colleagues to support sequestration-level funding for the NIH, National Park Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency, District of Columbia, National Guard, veterans benefits, nutrition assistance, Food and Drug Administration, and Head Start.
In some cases, the reasons for doing so seem straightforward. Fifteen of those Democrats crossover votes are included in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's "Frontline" list of the seats it will focus on defending in 2014, and eight serve in districts carried by Mitt Romney in 2012. (Arizona Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick is the only Democrat from a red district to toe the party line completely on the continuing resolution votes.) That's the best explanation for the votes of Reps. Cheri Bustos (Ill.), Brad Schneider (Ill.), Joe Garcia (Fla.), Scott Peters (Calif.), Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), Ami Bera (Calif.), Raul Ruiz (Calif.), Ron Barber (Ariz.), Patrick Murphy (Fla.), Mike McIntyre (N.C.), Jim Matheson (Utah), Suzan DelBene (Wash.), Sean Maloney (N.Y.), Pete Gallego (Texas), and John Barrow (Ga.).
And two Democratic congressmen—Reps. Bruce Braley of Iowa and Gary Peters of Michigan—represent otherwise blue districts but have entered competitive Senate races.
That leaves six Democrats—Reps. Jared Polis (Colo.), Stephen Lynch (Mass.), Bill Foster (Ill.), Dan Lipinski (Ill.), Dave Loebsack (Iowa), and John Garamendi (Calif.)—from relatively safe districts, all of which Obama carried by double digits in both 2008 and 2012, who crossed party lines to support Republicans' gimmick funding plan. So what gives?
Polis supports Democratic efforts for a clean continuing resolution, spokesman Brian Branton says, "[b]ut until that happens, he will work to make sure that our government is funded and our agencies reopen. Jared is proud to have supported a bipartisan bill that would reopen our National Parks so that the many jobs that revolve around tourism and Rocky Mountain National Park, in areas like Estes Park in Colorado, are safe." Megan Jacobs, Foster's spokeswoman, struck a similar note, emphasizing that while Foster opposed a piecemeal approach, "he believes if we have the opportunity to get some people back to work and services back on track, we should." Garamendi, who voted for six mini-funding bills, released a statement on Thursday calling on Boehner to knock it off: "This is embarrassing for our country and makes our international partners nervous."
If public opinion is any indication, though, things are looking up for the Democratic defectors. Public opinion polls have swung wildly against Republicans since the shutdown began. And on Thursday, there were signs of growing momentum for a bipartisan plan to restart the federal government, led by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). Maybe House Democrats really can have it all.