Herschel, Lovelace, Hamilton and Hopper: Women in the Two Ages of Wonder
Updated: Aug 6
This is the first episode of a series that profiles women scientists during what Richard Holmes calls “The Age of Wonder”. This was a period from approximately 1726 to 1830 that saw the rise of Romantic Science. The awe and wonder of the universe being revealed through scientific research began to fascinate the public. Popular periodicals and public lectures made information available to people in a way that had not been possible before. The romantic exploits of William Herschel, James Cook, Joseph Banks and Humphrey Davy revealed a world that was accessible and could be explained by reason and logic. Poets and writers began to laud the mysteries of science, out there and waiting to be revealed, to an adoring public.
In the midst of what was still a highly patriarchal society, women were playing significant roles, contributing in ways that had only been possible for men before. Caroline Herschel was the first woman to be paid a stipend for work as an astronomer while Ada Lovelace laid the foundations for computer science.
In later episodes, we will delve into the Second Age of Wonder. Women in the 20th century, including Margaret Hamilton and Grace Hopper, played critical roles as the first women computer scientists. Hamilton’s work was directly responsible for landing Apollo 11 on the moon in July 1969 while “Amazing Grace” pioneered technologies that computer programmers still rely on today.
The Enlightenment before the Age of Wonder
We only touched briefly on the Enlightenment that preceded the Age of Romantic Science during this week’s podcast. However, there were characteristics of the Enlightenment that laid important foundations that made many of the advances in the Age of Wonder possible.
European politics, science, philosophy and communications changed radically during the period of the Enlightenment, which is generally agreed to have run from 1685 through to 1815. This “long 18th-century” is also referred to as The Age of Reason, where British and American thinkers questioned traditional authority. They embraced the idea that humanity could be improved through rational change, not by the blind obedience that had characterised previous generations. This period was a time of significant scientific discoveries that occurred in the midst of wars and revolutions. Both the American and French Revolutions were directly inspired by rational, enlightenment ideas. These two revolutions, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, delineated both the peak of the Enlightenment and the beginning of its decline. Gradually, the Enlightenment gave way to 19th-century Romanticism.
Three significant factors stood out while we were researching the Enlightenment for this series. There is a timeline for the Enlightenment period you can download that shows these concepts in context.
Isaac Newton published his Principia Mathematica in 1686, laying out for the first time a consistent set of mathematical foundations for the motion of objects. He extends these foundations to include the motion of planets in the Solar System. Galileo and Copernicus had challenged the traditional Greek beliefs that the Earth was the centre of the Solar System. However, all attempts to explain the motion of the stars and planets in an Earth-centred universe required highly-convoluted mathematics and compromises. Once you place the Sun at the centre, all the elliptical planetary paths can be explained simply using Newton’s Laws of Motion. Occam’s Razor, a philosophical principle from Medieval times, states that if there exist two explanations for an occurrence, the one that requires the least speculation or is simplest is usually correct. Newton was deeply religious, using his research to help him understand how God made the universe work.
Voltaire’s 1764 Philosophical Dictionary proposed that everything in the universe could be rationally questioned, examined, demystified and then catalogued. He emulated the style of Pierre Bayle’s 1687 alphabetically-ordered dictionary Dictionaire Historique et Critique. Bayle and Voltaire arranged their topics in alphabetical order rather than presenting arguments as discourses as Galileo and earlier writers had done. Voltaire felt that earlier works were too bulky so he created a work that was small enough to carry in your pocket and meditate on topic-by-topic when you had time. Revolutionary material should be small enough for people to carry with them (Pearson, 2005).
German philosopher Immanuel Kant sums up the essence of the era in his essay What is Enlightenment? (1784): “Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason.” He argued that while people in his time were not yet enlightened, they lived in a time of enlightenment.
There was no single “Enlightenment”. Individual thinkers such as Locke, Jefferson in America and Voltaire had widely differing views. However, these differences emerged from common themes of belief in progress and rational questioning though shared dialogue. The emergence of coffee houses and literary salons emerged as new venues for ideas to be discussed. Newspapers became a way for ideas to be circulated widely and quickly.
Throwing out the old – the Late Enlightenment
The American Revolution from 1765 to 1783 and the coming of the Late Enlightenment (1780 to 1815) saw the storming of the Bastille in July 1789. Both emphasised a common enlightenment theme: the throwing out of the older authoritarian regimes to remake society along rational lines. Rationality paved the way for the Age of Romantic Science, 19th Century Liberalism and Classicism and led on to 20th Century Modernism.
Badger Dowdeswell is a PhD student and lecturer at the Auckland University of Technology. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.
Pearson, Roger, Voltaire Almighty: A life in pursuit of freedom, Bloomberg, 2005.
Books mentioned in the podcast
Sobel, D, Galileo's daughter: A historical memoir of science, faith, and love, Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 1999.
Holmes, R, The age of wonder: How the romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science, Vintage, 2010