Ask any woman working in science or engineering what inspired them to follow their career and they’ll probably mention encountering someone in their formative years who changed the way they thought.
When Ada Lovelace and her three children met Michael Faraday in 1851 the signs that it would shape the youngsters’ future were promising. In a letter afterwards, Faraday congratulates her on:
“… those young creatures whom I rejoice to know as your children. Their intelligence was astonishing, their manners kind & themselves in every way most interesting.”
Most parents of kids these days who got that kind of response from a friend as eminent as Faraday to meeting their teenagers (Byron was 15, his sister Annabella 13, and their younger brother Ralph Gordon 11) would have them signed up for extra science classes and be saving for college. (Probably having first checked they were talking about the same people.) But even combined with Ada’s own enthusiasm for technology, this endorsement didn’t result in glittering careers in science for the Lovelace brood.
Annabella achieved some success as a breeder of horses, marrying the poet Wilfred Scawen Blunt with whom she established the Crabbet Arabian Stud. Her brothers both inherited titles and seem to have led the undistinguished lives of 19th century aristocrats.
Faraday’s opinions of the young Lovelaces are preserved in the fourth volume of ‘The Correspondence of Michael Faraday’, a massive work by Royal Institution researcher Frank James that’s published by the Institution of Engineering and Technology. With the sixth and final volume due out later this year, IET magazine Engineering & Technology has put together a video for Ada Lovelace Day 2010 that looks at some of the letters Lovelace and Faraday wrote to each other. The letters, held in the IET’s Archives, are also on display in a Lovelace Day exhibition at the Institution’s London Headquarters in Savoy Place.
Let’s not be defeatist though. Even if Lovelace didn’t spawn a dynasty of great mathematicians, anyone can do their bit to push promising young people in the direction of science – like Faraday may have been trying to do – with a little well aimed praise. The congratulatory email you fire off next time a colleague’s kid impresses you on bring your daughter to work day may not end up in a multi-volume collection of your complete correspondence, but it could have a more immediate effect on shaping the next generation of engineers.