Thanks to them, we have computers, WiFi, Bluetooth, and we now recognise the importance of a healthy diet. If these were not enough, their effort helped in the second world war, and encouraged other aspiring female scientists to work in male-dominated environments.
One of the most important things in our modern-day society is the usage of computers. For the first discovery on a long and tough scientific road towards the modern-day computer, we must thank Ada Lovelace. She is mostly known as the famous Lord Byron’s daughter, although she never knew him personally. She was a brilliant, 19th century mathematician who is known for creating the world’s first computer algorithm.
Because she was a lady, she had access to private tutors at a young age, and as an adult she has been taught by Professor Augustus de Moran, who was the first mathematics professor at the University of London. Having married the Earl William King, she became Countess of Lovelace.
Partnering up with Charles Babbage proved to be one of her best decisions in her life, and in science’s history too. He was working on a machine called the Analytical Engine. This was the ‘computer’ that she has created an algorithm for. Even though Lovelace’s contribution was mainly theoretical, and with Charles Babbage they have only built a small part of the machine itself, her efforts have been remembered. The actual theory proved to be a correct one, and the early programming language, Ada, was named after her. The second Tuesday of October is Ada Lovelace Day, to remember women’s effort and contribution to science, technology, mathematics, and engineering.
Born as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Austria, she was widely recognised as the femme fatale actress, Hedy Lamarr. During her successful career in Hollywood, she starred in films such as Ecstasy, The Strange Woman, Dishonoured Lady etc. Ecstasy was deemed scandalous because she appears naked in it. Behind all this glamorous front, she was a pianist, dancer, spoke four languages and was an inventor too. You would not assume that in her free time she came up with the concept of ‘Frequency Hopping’ which, apart from helping the Americans in the second world war, is the reason why we have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth today.
The idea behind the electronic device she created was to be able to minimise jamming between radio signals, so that important or secret conversations between ships could not be heard by the enemy.
Her contribution to plastic surgery must also be mentioned. Ideas and suggestions that she made and had performed on her, are still used today.
In my opinion, she was a very interesting person, and made astute remarks, such as: “Any girl can be glamorous; all you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” Worth remembering her name, don’t you think?
Even as a young child she was incredibly intelligent and capable. At the age of twelve she built a working model of a spinning wheel and won a prize for it too. In her free time, she did not play with dolls like her contemporaries, on the contrary. She has learned to disassemble and reassemble a Enfield 225cc motorbike engine. It should not come as a surprise that by the age of 15 she was determined to become an engineer. The war proved to be an opportunity for her and a lot of other women to join the previously exclusive male workforce.
It is without a doubt that the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt 109 fighters (on the German side), and the RAF’s Hurricanes and Spitfires (on the British side) were crucial elements in the second world war. In the beginning, the Luftwaffe’s engines were a lot better than the Spitfire ones. The Brits used Rolls-Royce Merlin engines that had a fatal flaw that occurred while diving. Sometimes the engine starved itself of fuel mid-flight, sometimes only momentarily other times they stopped working permanently. This obviously resulted in a lot of pilots losing their lives in vain. The RAF needed someone to identify the problem and come up with a quick fix. More long-term, they needed to create a new set of fuel-injected engines. This is where Beatrice Shilling, motorbike enthusiast, comes into the picture.
Beatrice and her team worked tirelessly (19-hour shifts) for a year, and in the end, they came up with a solution to the problem. Sir Stanley Hooker, a Rolls Royce engineer came up with the name of the restrictor that stopped the engine from dying. It was called ‘Miss Shilling’s Orifice’, which reportedly entertained her a lot. For her help she received the OBE in 1948. It must be mentioned that even though her efforts have been recognised, she faced a lot of insults and difficulties as a female engineer, but she was one of many women, who made the next generation of female engineer’s lives a bit easier.
Lack of food was (and still is) the main problem of any society going through war. Britain was no during the second world war. The people were hungry and suffering from malnutrition, so the government had to come up with a way of rationing food, while keeping society relatively healthy. Elsie Widdowson and Robert McCance’s work was of the utmost importance during these tough years.
Elsie Widdowson studied chemistry at Imperial College London, where she researched the distribution of sugars in apples. After this she transferred to the human biochemistry course where she specialised in dietetics, i.e., nutrition and diet regulation.
After finishing her studies, she met her future research partner, Dr Robert McCance, who was in the process of studying what elements cooking removed from food, such as vegetables and meat. Because of her previous work on apples and sugars, Elsie made Robert aware that some of his calculations were wrong. He was so impressed by her intellect, that from that point onwards his research became a joint effort. They went on to be (strictly) research partners for sixty years.
The pair came up with a list of foods and their nutritional compounds, The Chemical Composition of Foods, which was published in 1940. Leading scientists in the government relied heavily on its content, and with its help they created a rationed diet for the UK’s citizens. The way Widdowson and McCance worked out the essential nutritional elements of the average person’s diet proved to be incredibly useful. Most people lived on cabbage, potatoes with an increased amount of protein in them, and on bread to which they added a bit of chalk to increase the population’s calcium levels. McCance, Widdowson and their whole team tested the diets’ effectiveness. They all lived according to this diet for six months, after which they have ventured upon a strenuous hike and cycling getaway in the Lake District.
Her works’ influence resulted in the fluoridation of water and the addition of vitamins and iron to breakfast cereals too.
Image: A Year of Women
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. ‘Ada Lovelace’. Encyclopedia Britannica, 15 Jan. 2021. [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ada-Lovelace (Accessed 18 March 2021).
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. ‘Hedy Lamarr’. Encyclopedia Britannica, 15 Jan. 2021. [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Hedy-Lamarr. (Accessed 18 March 2021).
C, Newman (2018). Bloody Brilliant Women. London: HarperCollins Publishers