I did not expect, or desire to be so pivotal, so central to the cause of Women’s suffrage. Obviously, I was brought up by my Father to be somewhat different to the traditional ideal of womanhood, but as long as I was free to indulge my passion for mathematics I was not overly concerned about the wider role of the female in society. This is, of course, in direct contrast to my sister Cordelia who was educated at Bedford College and as a result holds some rather non-conformist views which led to her involvement in the creation of the Women’s Education and Suffrage Union.
I had no need of a college for women. I was fortunate in my Father’s friendship with the wonderful Charles Babbage who spotted my talent for mathematics when I was just a child. To be introduced to the magical worlds of trigonometry and calculus by such a great mind was a privilege which I fully appreciate now, although I am sorry to say I took it for granted at the time. Uncle Charles, I called him uncle although we were not blood relations, was not at all prejudiced against working with a young girl. In fact, he said that I reminded him of his much missed protégé Ada Lovelace.
I miss Charles. My life has been lonelier since his death. We spent the last 10 years of his life collaborating on the Analytical Engine. I think I was truly happy in those days when I spent every day from early morning until late in the evening working with the greatest mind in England. I carefully read and then expanded on Ada’s wonderful document which she, in her modesty, had entitled Sketch of the Analytical Engine, with Notes from the Translator. I may not have had the advantage of being fathered by the great Lord Byron but I don’t think it is impertinent to say that what I lacked in poetic language I made up for with my grasp of the technology. I think it is fair to say that Charles, Ada and I were a unique combination of the genius, the vision and the practical skill to turn his dream into reality.
I was devastated when Charles died so close to fulfilling his and Ada’s dream of creating the Analytical Engine. I was working in the lab when a servant informed me of his death and I knew immediately that I had to take the plans to have any hope of succeeding with the machine. I hired a carriage and paid the driver a handsome stipend to help me move the mountains of papers and our prototypes to my Father’s house. It was fortunate that I acted quickly as his son Henry was so eager to share the genius of his father that even his very brain was donated to the Hunterian museum. Henry, alas, did not share his father’s views on female emancipation and would have sooner asked me to darn his socks than carry on the work of Charles Babbage.
It was not easy to continue development of the machine as a female in the distinctly male world of engineering. I was fortunate in finding Mr David Clement, the son of the Joseph Clement who had collaborated on Charles’ early machines. David was an intelligent, skilled and inventive engineer. If I am going to be entirely honest in this confession then I should reveal that our collaboration extended beyond the strictly professional.
When at last the machine was ready I was not entirely sure how to proceed. I am ashamed to say that I listened to the urging of my sister.
“I don’t fully understand what the thing does but I do know you must use it for the advancement of your sisters,” she said.
I presented the machine not as the Babbage analysis machine but as the Harkness automatic computer. I claimed it as entirely my own work with no mention of Charles Babbage or Ada Lovelace and in doing so I betrayed my collaborators. My sister and her organisation used the evidence of a woman being sole inventor of such a wonder to refute many of the traditional arguments against votes for women. By the time female suffrage was granted in 1890 we were known as the formidable Harkness sisters. Cordelia assures me that the end justifies the means but as I get older I believe this less and less.