15 Incredible Historic Women You Should Know

March is Women’s History Month, and there’s no shortage of important women to celebrate. From fierce warriors to beloved poets, political activists to fearsome pirates, many women have made their mark on history, even if they aren't household names. To celebrate the many achievements of women, here are 15 incredible women you may not know about, but probably should.

1. EDMONIA LEWIS

One of the first internationally famous African American artists, Edmonia Lewis was born in New York in 1844 and studied art at Oberlin College before becoming a professional sculptor. She was known for her marble busts of famous abolitionists like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Horace Greeley, and her patrons included President Ulysses S. Grant.

2. ANYTE OF TEGEA

One the great poets of Ancient Greece, Anyte (3rd century BCE) was one of the earliest poets to write primarily about the natural world and not the supernatural, focusing on plants and animals instead of the gods. Anyte was famous for writing epitaphs, many of which were humorous in tone. In one, she satirized the seriousness of most human epitaphs by commemorating the life of a cicada kept as a pet by a little girl. She wrote, "Myro, a girl, letting fall a child's tears, raised this little tomb for the locust that sang in the seed-land and for the oak-dwelling cicada; implacable Hades holds their double song." More of Anyte's works survive to this day than any other female Greek poet.

3. JEANNE BARET

Botanist and explorer Jeanne Baret was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. In 1766, the 26-year-old French woman boarded a ship disguised as a man named “Jean” and proceeded to sail around the world, collecting and studying plant samples with her paramour, the botanist Philibert Commercon. Her true gender was finally discovered somewhere in the South Pacific, and she and Commercon were kicked off the ship in Mauritius. Baret finally returned to France nearly a decade later, where she was lauded by the government as an “extraordinary woman” for her botanical work.

4. SARAH GUPPY

British inventor Sarah Guppy received 10 patents during her lifetime for a truly eclectic range of inventions. From a coffee maker that used its excess steam to boil eggs and warm toast to a device for removing barnacles from the bottoms of ships (for which the British Navy paid £40,000), Guppy was an unstoppable force in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. And her designs can still be seen: the stunning Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol would not have been possible without her 1811 plans for piling the foundations on either side of the Avon Gorge.

5. SAYYIDA AL HURRA

Sixteenth-century Islamic pirate queen Sayyida Al Hurra was both the governor of the city of Tétouan in Northern Morocco and a legendary pirate who ruled much of the western Mediterranean Sea for nearly 30 years, wreaking havoc on Spanish and Portuguese ships between 1515 and 1542. Though her real name is unknown, the honorary title "Sayyida Al Hurra" translates to "noble lady who is free and independent; the woman sovereign who bows to no superior authority." She was also the last woman to hold the Al Hurra title.

6. MIRABAI

Mirabai, also known as Meera, was a 16th-century Indian poet who wrote numerous bhajans (prayerful songs) to the Hindu god Krishna. Mirabai was born into a wealthy family, but she eschewed her aristocratic life, devoting herself fully to the worship of Krishna and the singing of bhajans.

7. APHRA BEHN

Seventeenth-century playwright, novelist, poet, and government spy Aphra Behn may have been the first woman in England to earn her living as a professional writer. Though many men of her time vocally disapproved of female writers in general—and of the often risqué content of Behn’s writing specifically—her theatrical works were popular with audiences. Behn worked for most of her adult life as a writer, but took a brief break from the literary world from 1666 through 1667 when she traveled to Antwerp under the name "Astrea" to work as a spy for Charles II.

8. TRIỆU THI TRINH

Sometimes called the Vietnamese Joan of Arc, Triệu Thi Trinh (3rd century BCE) was a warrior who led a rebel army against Chinese invaders. Legend has it that she was 9 feet tall and fought over 30 battles against the Chinese, sometimes riding an elephant. When someone tried to discourage her from fighting, she famously said, "I will not resign myself to the lot of women who bow their heads and become concubines. I wish to ride the tempest, tame the waves, kill the sharks. I have no desire to take abuse."

9. HARRIET POWERS

Harriet Powers's pictorial quilt. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Born into slavery in Georgia in 1837, Harriet Powers became known as one of the greatest Southern textile artists in United States history. Throughout her life Powers used intricate quilts to tell stories, stitching stunning and elaborate images from Bible stories, myths, and celestial phenomena while also drawing on West African artistic traditions. Only two of her quilts survive today; one is held by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and the other by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

10. SARAH MOORE GRIMKE AND ANGELINA GRIMKE

Abolitionist sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimke were 19th-century orators and educators who traveled America lecturing on the horrors of slavery, and who penned numerous abolitionist tracts. They also spoke frequently on behalf of women’s rights, and were considered radical for arguing not only for the abolition of slavery, but in support of genuine racial and gender equality.

11. FANNIE FARMER

Nineteenth-century culinary expert Fannie Farmer is often called the "mother of level measurements." Farmer, who was born in Boston in 1857 and whose cookbooks are still in print over a century after their initial publication, helped standardize the cooking measurements which we now take for granted. 

12. LOZEN

A great Apache warrior, Lozen rebelled after she and her family were forced onto a reservation in the 1870s. Together with her brother Victorio, she led a band of warriors, raiding the lands that were taken from them by settlers. "Lozen is my right hand … strong as a man, braver than most, and cunning in strategy," Victorio famously said of his sister. "Lozen is a shield to her people."

13. QIU JIN

Chinese feminist, revolutionary, poet, and eventual martyr, Qiu Jin fought for women's access to education and against foot binding, founded a feminist journal, and fought against the Qing Dynasty before being executed in 1907 at age 31 after a failed uprising. She often wrote poetry about current events and historical female warriors and is considered a national hero by many in China.

14. MARGARET E. KNIGHT

Born in Maine in 1838, Margaret E. Knight went from working in a factory to inventing a product that would change the world—or, at least, the way we package groceries—forever: the paper bag. Knight created a machine that could mass-produce paper bags with flat bottoms (while earlier paper bags existed, they were more like flat envelopes). Her creation not only had a huge impact on the paper industry at the time, but machines based on Knight’s original design are still in use to this day.

15. CAROLINE HERSCHEL

British astronomer Caroline Herschel was born in Germany in 1750 and spent her early years doing housework for her parents (she once called herself the "Cinderella of the family"). She later moved to England to help her astronomer brother run his household and became a great astronomer in her own right. Not only was Herschel the first woman to discover a comet, but she was the first woman to have her scientific writings published and to be paid for her work.

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
15 Riveting Facts About Alan Turing
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

More than six decades after his death, Alan Turing’s life remains a point of fascination—even for people who have no interest in his groundbreaking work in computer science. He has been the subject of a play and an opera, and referenced in multiple novels and numerous musical albums. The Benedict Cumberbatch film about his life, The Imitation Game, received eight Oscar nominations. But just who was he in real life? Here are 15 facts you should know about Alan Turing, who was born on this day in 1912.

1. HE’S THE FATHER OF MODERN COMPUTER SCIENCE.

Turing essentially pioneered the idea of computer memory. In 1936, Turing published a seminal paper called “On Computable Numbers” [PDF], which The Washington Post has called “the founding document of the computer age.” In the philosophical article, he hypothesized that one day, we could build machines that could compute any problem that a human could, using 0s and 1s. Turing proposed single-task machines called Turing machines that would be capable of solving just one type of math problem, but a “universal computer” would be able to tackle any kind of problem thrown at it by storing instructional code in the computer’s memory. Turing’s ideas about memory storage and using a single machine to carry out all tasks laid the foundation for what would become the digital computer.

In 1945, while working for the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, he came up with the Automatic Computing Machine, the first digital computer with stored programs. Previous computers didn’t have electric memory storage, and had to be manually rewired to switch between different programs.

2. HE PLAYED A HUGE ROLE IN WINNING WORLD WAR II.

Turing began working at Bletchley Park, Britain’s secret headquarters for its codebreakers during World War II, in 1939. By one estimate, his work there may have cut the war short by up to two years. He’s credited with saving millions of lives.

Turing immediately got to work designing a codebreaking machine called the Bombe (an update of a previous Polish machine) with the help of his colleague Gordon Welchman. The Bombe shortened the steps required in decoding, and 200 of them were built for British use over the course of the war. They allowed codebreakers to decipher up to 4000 messages a day.

His greatest achievement was cracking the Enigma, a mechanical device used by the German army to encode secure messages. It proved nearly impossible to decrypt without the correct cipher, which the German forces changed every day. Turing worked to decipher German naval communications at a point when German U-boats were sinking ships carrying vital supplies across the Atlantic between Allied nations. In 1941, Turing and his team managed to decode the German Enigma messages, helping to steer Allied ships away from the German submarine attacks. In 1942, he traveled to the U.S. to help the Americans with their own codebreaking work.

3. HE BROKE THE RULES TO WRITE TO CHURCHILL.

Early on, Bletchley Park’s operations were hampered by a lack of resources, but pleas for better staffing were ignored by government officials. So, Alan Turing and several other codebreakers at Bletchley Park went over their heads to write directly to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. One of the codebreakers from Bletchley Park delivered the letter by hand in October 1941.

“Our reason for writing to you direct is that for months we have done everything that we possibly can through the normal channels, and that we despair of any early improvement without your intervention,” they wrote to Churchill [PDF]. “No doubt in the long run these particular requirements will be met, but meanwhile still more precious months will have been wasted, and as our needs are continually expanding we see little hope of ever being adequately staffed.”

In response, Churchill immediately fired off a missive to his chief of staff: “Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this had been done.”

4. HE HAD SOME ODD HABITS.

Like many geniuses, Turing was not without his eccentricities. He wore a gas mask while riding his bike to combat his allergies. Instead of fixing his bike’s faulty chain, he learned exactly when to dismount to secure it in place before it slipped off. He was known around Bletchley Park for chaining his tea mug to a radiator to prevent it from being taken by other staffers.

5. HE RODE HIS BIKE 60 MILES TO GET TO THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL.

Though he was considered an average student, Turing was dedicated enough to his schooling that when a general strike prevented him from taking the train to his first day at his new elite boarding school, the 14-year-old rode his bike the 62 miles instead.

6. HE TRIED OUT FOR THE OLYMPICS.

Turing started running as a schoolboy and continued throughout his life, regularly running the 31 miles between Cambridge and Ely while he was a fellow at King’s College. During World War II, he occasionally ran the 40 miles between London and Bletchley Park for meetings.

He almost became an Olympic athlete, too. He came in fifth place at a qualifying marathon for the 1948 Olympics with a 2-hour, 46-minute finish (11 minutes slower than the 1948 Olympic marathon winner). However, a leg injury held back his athletic ambitions that year.

Afterward, he continued running for the Walton Athletic Club, though, and served as its vice president. ”I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard,” he once told the club’s secretary. “It's the only way I can get some release."

7. HE WAS PROSECUTED FOR BEING GAY.

In 1952, Turing was arrested after reporting a burglary in his home. In the course of the investigation, the police discovered Turing’s relationship with another man, Arnold Murray. Homosexual relationships were illegal in the UK at the time, and he was charged with “gross indecency.” He pled guilty on the advice of his lawyer, and opted to undergo chemical castration instead of serving time in jail.

8. THE GOVERNMENT ONLY RECENTLY APOLOGIZED FOR HIS CONVICTION …

In 2009, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology to Turing on behalf of the British government. “Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly,” Brown said. "This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue." Acknowledging Britain’s debt to Turing for his vital contributions to the war effort, he announced, “on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better."

His conviction was not actually pardoned, though, until 2013, when he received a rare royal pardon from the Queen of England.

9. … AND NAMED A LAW AFTER HIM.

Turing was only one of the many men who suffered after being prosecuted for their homosexuality under 19th-century British indecency laws. Homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK in 1967, but the previous convictions were never overturned. Turing’s Law, which went into effect in 2017, posthumously pardoned men who had been convicted for having consensual gay sex before the repeal. According to one of the activists who campaigned for the mass pardons, around 15,000 of the 65,000 gay men convicted under the outdated law are still alive.

10. HE POISONED HIMSELF … MAYBE.

There is still a bit of mystery surrounding Turing’s death at the age of 41. Turing died of cyanide poisoning, in what is widely believed to have been a suicide. Turing’s life had been turned upside down by his arrest. He lost his job and his security clearance. By order of the court, he had to take hormones intended to “cure” his homosexuality, which caused him to grow breasts and made him impotent. But not everyone is convinced that he died by suicide.

In 2012, Jack Copeland, a Turing scholar, argued that the evidence used to declare Turing’s death a suicide in 1954 would not be sufficient to close the case today. The half-eaten apple by his bedside, thought to be the source of his poisoning, was never tested for cyanide. There was still a to-do list on his desk, and his friends told the coroner at the time that he had seemed in good spirits. Turing’s mother, in fact, maintained that he probably accidentally poisoned himself while experimenting with the chemical in his home laboratory. (He was known to taste chemicals while identifying them, and could be careless with safety precautions.)

That line of inquiry is far more tame than some others, including one author’s theory that he was murdered by the FBI to cover up information that would have been damaging to the U.S.

11. HIS FULL GENIUS WASN’T KNOWN IN HIS LIFETIME.

Alan Turing was a well-respected mathematician in his time, but his contemporaries didn’t know the full extent of his contributions to the world. Turing’s work breaking the Enigma machine remained classified long after his death, meaning that his contributions to the war effort and to mathematics were only partially known to the public during his lifetime. It wasn’t until the 1970s that his instrumental role in the Allies' World War II victory became public with the declassification of the Enigma story. The actual techniques Turing used to decrypt the messages weren’t declassified until 2013, when two of his papers from Bletchley Park were released to the British National Archives.

12. THE TURING TEST IS STILL USED TO MEASURE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE …

Can a machine fool a human into thinking they are chatting with another person? That’s the crux of the Turing test, an idea developed by Turing in 1950 regarding how to measure artificial intelligence. Turing argued in his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” [PDF] that the idea of machines “thinking” is not a useful way to evaluate artificial intelligence. Instead, Turing suggests “the imitation game,” a way to assess how successfully a machine can imitate human behavior. The best measure of artificial intelligence, then, is whether or not a computer can convince a person that it is human.

13. … BUT SOME CONSIDER IT TO BE AN OUTDATED IDEA.

As technology has progressed, some feel the Turing test is no longer a useful way to measure artificial intelligence. It’s cool to think about computers being able to talk just like a person, but new technology is opening up avenues for computers to express intelligence in other, more useful ways. A robot’s intelligence isn’t necessarily defined by whether it can fake being human—self-driving cars or programs that can mimic sounds based on images might not pass the Turing test, but they certainly have intelligence.

14. HE CREATED THE FIRST COMPUTER CHESS PROGRAM.

Inspired by the chess champions he worked with at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing created an algorithm for an early version of computer chess—although at that time, there was no computer to try it out on. Created with paper and pencil, the Turochamp program was designed to think two moves ahead, picking out the best moves possible. In 2012, Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov played against Turing’s algorithm, beating it in 16 moves. “I would compare it to an early caryou might laugh at them but it is still an incredible achievement," Kasparov said in a statement after the match-up.

15. THERE IS ALAN TURING MONOPOLY.

In 2012, Monopoly came out with an Alan Turing edition to celebrate the centennial of his birth. Turing had enjoyed playing Monopoly during his life, and the Turing-themed Monopoly edition was designed based on a hand-drawn board created in 1950 by his friend William Newman. Instead of hotels and houses, it featured huts and blocks inspired by Bletchley Park, and included never-before-published photos of Turing. (It’s hard to find, but there are still a few copies of the game on Amazon.)

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E. A. Tilly, Library of Congress // Public Domain
The 19th Century Poet Who Predicted a 1970s Utopia
An electric airship departing Paris in 1883.
An electric airship departing Paris in 1883.
E. A. Tilly, Library of Congress // Public Domain

In 1870, John Collins dreamed of a future without cigarettes, crime, or currency inflation. The Quaker poet, teacher, and lithographer authored "1970: A Vision for the Coming Age," a 28-page-long poem that imagines what the world would be like a century later—or, as Collins poetically puts it, in "nineteen hundred and threescore and ten.”

The poem, recently spotlighted by The Public Domain Review, is a fanciful epic that follows a narrator as he travels in an airship from Collins’s native New Jersey to Europe, witnessing the wonders of a futuristic society.

In Collins’s imagination, the world of the future seamlessly adheres to his own Quaker leanings. He writes: “Suffice it to say, every thing that I saw / Was strictly conformed to one excellent law / That forbade all mankind to make or to use / Any goods that a Christian would ever refuse.” For him, that means no booze or bars, no advertising, no “vile trashy novels,” not even “ribbons hung flying around.” Needless to say, he wouldn’t have been prepared for Woodstock. In his version of 1970, everyone holds themselves to a high moral standard, no rules required. Children happily greet strangers on their way to school (“twas the custom of all, not enforced by a rule”) before hurrying on to ensure that they don’t waste any of their “precious, short study hours.”

It’s a society whose members are never sick or in pain, where doors don’t need locks and prisons don’t exist, where no one feels tempted to cheat, lie, or steal, and no one goes bankrupt. There is no homelessness. The only money is in the form of gold and silver, and inflation isn't an issue. Storms, fires, and floods are no longer, and air pollution has been eradicated.

While Collins’s sunny outlook might have been a little off-base, he did hint at some innovations that we’d recognize today. He describes international shipping, and comes decently close to predicting drone delivery—in his imagination, a woman in Boston asks a Cuban friend to send her some fruit that “in half an hour came, propelled through the air.” He kind of predicts CouchSurfing (or an extremely altruistic version of Airbnb), imagining that in the future, hotels wouldn't exist and kind strangers would just put you up in their homes for free. He dreams up undersea cables that could broadcast a kind of live video feed of musicians from around the world, playing in their homes, to a New York audience—basically a YouTube concert. He describes electric submarines (“iron vessels with fins—a submarine line, / propels by galvanic action alone / and made to explore ocean’s chambers unknown") and trains that run silently. He even describes climate change, albeit a much more appealing view of it than we’re experiencing now. In his world, “one perpetual spring had encircled the earth.”

Collins might be a little disappointed if he could have actually witnessed the world of 1970, which was far from the Christian utopia he hoped for. But he would have at least, presumably, really enjoyed plane rides.

You can read the whole thing here.

[h/t The Public Domain Review]

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