Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 828:
SOMERVILLE AND MARCET

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 828.

Today, we talk about secret female science in 19th-century England. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In 1816 Mary Fairfax Somerville and her husband moved from Scotland to London. She was a brilliant woman -- a student of science and mathematics. Now her first order of business in London was to meet the noted technical writer Jane Marcet.

Marcet was 47 and well established. She'd written on chemistry, economics, biology, and much more. The two became close friends. Marcet was well connected. She opened doors into London's intellectual life. She also opened European connections. Somerville struck up lasting friendships with the likes of Biot, Gay-Lussac, and Arago as each passed through London.

Even more interesting was the feminine underground around her. I do not call it feminIST. It was not. For example, Marcet didn't even sign her female name to her books. She never made any claim of intellectual equality with the thousands of men trained by her books -- ostensibly written for young ladies.

Somerville studied with women in this underground, and she taught them. She was Ada Byron's first tutor in mathematics. We know Ada Byron for writing popular explanations of Babbage's computers. Somerville formed ongoing circles of scientific women.

But she was tackling the most masculine of the male preserves -- mathematics. She was 51 when she stepped beyond the science of the salon. Among her European friends was the great French scientist La Place. In 1831, Somerville wrote an English-language discourse on his celestial mechanics.

That was the first in a series of major scientific treatises that involved a share of original theory. No more anonymity of authorship or pretense to be writing for young ladies.

She was 68 when she wrote her treatise on geology. For that, the devout Somerville was condemned by the fundamentalist dean of York Cathedral, right along with the leading male scientists of the day -- a peculiar but significant mark of equality.

By then the Royal Society had placed her bust in their Great Hall. Among her honors was honorary membership in the Geneva Society of Physics and Natural History. That one was arranged by Jane Marcet, who wrote to her,

You receive great honours, my dear friend, but that which you bestow on our sex is still greater, for with talents and acquirements of masculine magnitude you unite the most sensitive and retiring modesty of the female sex.

That is just praise. For, as you read Somerville's memoirs, you are powerfully struck by the vast presence of scientific women all around her. These are women who, with few exceptions, have been written out of our history books -- but who are, nevertheless, woven through the fabric of all we know today.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Somerville, M., Personal Recollections, from Early Life to Old Age. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1895. (The M. stands for Martha, Mary's daughter. These Memoirs were first issued in 1873 and 1874 after Mary's death in 1872 at the age of 92. Mary Somerville was engaged in scientific writing to the very end of her long life.)

Patterson, E.C., Mary Somerville and the Cultivation of Science, 1815-1840. Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1983.

For more on Somerville, see Episode 224. For more on Marcet, see Episodes 741, 744, and 745.


Mary Fairfax Somerville (The frontispiece of her book,
On Molecular and Microscopic Science)



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.


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