Some Firsts Who Were Women

The Web keeps throwing stories at me about remarkable pioneering women, so let me get down a few before It gets mad:

First Known Author – Enheduanna, Ur, ~2200 BCE

That is, the first writer whose name was recorded.  Seems late, doesn’t it?  The Sumerians had already had writing for about a thousand years by this date, and there were already personal names being recorded by 3100 BCE (See Kushim and Iry-Hor).  She was a major figure, though – a daughter of the the first emperor of Mesopotamia, Sargon of Akkad, and high priestess of the goddess Inanna in her ziggurat in Ur.   Here is the only image of her, where she is approaching an altar with three male priests:

Restored Disk of Enheduanna, U Penn Museum, click for description

Her name is on the back, and has also been found on cylinder seals.  She wrote a set of hymns to the goddess which were in use for centuries, and have been found at many other temples.   Performing the works of the emperor’s daughter is a good career move, and that might account for their popularity, but the hymns themselves are quite striking, and outlasted the Akkadian Dynasty.

First Named Chemist – Tapputi, Babylon, ~1200 BCE

The Babylonian cuneiform to the right is a fragment of the first description of a chemical process assigned to a named person, Tapputi-Belatekallim, who was a palace overseer.  It describes the purification of various scented materials like myrrh and balsam, and heating results to collect the vapors.  The tablet was translated by Erich Ebeling, a German Assyriologist, and the pieces are in European collections. The description is long and elaborate and is given here: “A Group of Akkadian Texts on Perfumery”, by Martin Levey (an historian of chemistry at SUNY Albany), Chymia, Vol. 6 (1960), pp. 11-19.   Perfumes were a big deal both there and in Egypt, so it’s no wonder that manuals for them survive.  I first read about her in Derek Lowe’s fun The Chemistry Book, and he also has an informative blog, In the Pipeline.

First Named Alchemist – Maria Hebraeus (Mary the Jewess), Alexandria, ~200 CE

Sadly, we have none of her works, but she is credited by a later writer, Zosimos of Panopolis with the invention of  a lot of alchemical equipment.   Here is her tribikos:

From a drawing in Zosimus

This is a kind of alembic with three copper spouts instead of one, and with glass jars sealed on the ends, and is used for distilling.  There was some evidence of stills before this, but this is the first full description.  It could have been used for distilling alcohol, as Adam Rogers postulated in Proof – the Science of Booze (2014).   That would have been a major advance for humanity, but there is sadly no evidence of spirits in Roman times.

Marie also invented the double boiler, which is known to this day as the bain-marie (bath of Mary) in France and the Marienbad in Germany.

First Programmer – Grace Hopper, Cambridge MA, 1944

She was working on the Harvard Mark I machine during the War:

Hopper at Mark I console

when she discovered the first actual computer bug:

“Relay #70 Panel F,  (moth) in relay”.  The Mark I used relays, and the bug was caught in its mechanical contacts.

And cartooned them!

From her notebook: “Table worm”, “Kitchee Boo Boo Bug, He who goes around loosening relays”, “NRL bug, He who sends wrong data”, “He who brings good data”

Her  remarkable career is well-known, so let me just add that  I actually heard her speak in 1976.   She handed out her famous nanoseconds!   This was a piece of wire about a foot long, which is how far light travels in one billionth of a second.  She then brought out a huge coil of almost a thousand feet of wire.  “And this is a microsecond!  Don’t waste them!”  She said that the wires were useful for explaining computer time scales to children and admirals. She appeared in her dress uniform, and there were tears in her eyes when she talked about serving in her beloved Navy.

Now, some consider Ada Lovelace to be the first programmer, because there were some notes about algorithms in her 1843 translation of a description of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine.  But it appears that Babbage himself came up with those, and in any case the machine was never built.  She did apparently realize, unlike Babbage, that computers could manipulate symbols besides numbers, E.g. musical notes, which is a major insight.

First (and Only!) Person To Swim the English Channel Four Times – Sarah Thomas, 2019

She swam about 130 miles in 52 hours and 10 minutes in September 2019.  That’s over two days in the water, swimming at 2.5 miles/hour!  Hardly anyone can even walk for that long.  Her average time of 13 hours for a single crossing would have been the world record  in 1951.   And this after beating breast cancer the year before! She also holds the record for the longest open water swim in a course without currents: 104.7 miles down and up Lake Champlain in 67:16.  Her day job is recruiting for a health care company in Colorado.

Long distance swims are the main place where women hold absolute athletic records.  This list – LongswimDB Course Records – shows 175 open-water courses of which women hold 30% of the records, 55 out of 175.   It’s probably a matter of buoyancy and energy storage.  There’s definitely something different about these people’s stamina and endurance!


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