Ada Lovelace Day 2010

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science. Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, wrote the first programs for Charles Babbage’s mechanical computer.

Antonia Odenweller, born Friedrich This post is to commemorate my grandfather’s grandmother, Antonia Odenweller. She was born 33 years after Lady Ada, on January 7th, 1849, in Kransberg, a village in a valley of the Taunus mountains, about 30 km north of Frankfurt. She was the daughter of the mason Ludwig Friedrich1 and his wife Eva.2 My great-great-grandmother married Joseph Odenweller3 in 1870 who served as a combat medic in the Franco-Prussian War 1870/71, where he received an internal wound that led to his early decease in 1878 at the age of 30. Antonia died March 3rd, 1911, in Usingen.

So what’s got that to do with technology, you ask? Here’s what my grandfather Wilhelm Kliehm wrote about her in his diary,4 more than 50 years ago:

Due to the early loss of her bread-winner my grandmother had to earn her livelihood by sewing. Thus she was often out-of-town, and mostly in Winter she was at our place at home.

People tell me about her that she was the most beautiful and strongest of her siblings. She was good at writing poems and provided them to everybody at every occasion. Alas I wasn’t able to obtain any of them until today.

Grandmother was in her younger days (roughly at 14-18 years) in Friedrichsdorf in the employ of Philipp Reis, the inventor of the telephone, at a time when Reis was still working on the invention. Grandmother often had to help him strain the wires across the yard into the barn, listening to the first sounds. So to speak she was the first foreign person Philipp Reis was speaking to on the phone.

In fact the Philipp-Reis-Museum and archive in Friedrichsdorf confirmed that Antonia worked in the household around 1866; according to the notes of my grandfather she would have been employed there between 1863-1867. Philipp Reis started to work on his first prototype between 1858-1863, he also coined the term telephone.

Alas the inventor died of tuberculosis in 1874; I guess otherwise grandma Antonia could have asked him for work after her husband passed away, instead she resorted to sewing. I can imagine her very well straining the wires and assisting Reis, and since she wrote poems I assume she was somewhat smart — who knows what else she contributed to the invention? Had she been born in another century, she might have become an engineer!

The barn where Philipp Reis had his workshop:

In a broader historical context, Prussia annexed the Free City of Frankfurt and the Southern part of the Grand-Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt in 1866 after the allies lost the Austro-Prussian War. So I guess that brought massive changes to the citizens and could be the reason why my great-great-grandma quit her job in 1866/67 as it was unsafe for a young woman to work in occupied territory. :(

So this everyday example shows that even in the 19th century women in technology might have been more common than we thought, but were much more constrained by society. A mere 150 years later the constraints are less visible, but still exist in some people’s heads. Let us embrace diversity instead and respect the talents of people, without any reservations. My great-great-grandmother Antonia Odenweller is my personal technical heroine, and so could be you for successive generations. ;)


Please note the German version of this post on my employer’s blog.

3 Joseph Odenweller
(1848-1878, her spouse)
Joseph Odenweller

1 Ludwig Friedrich
(1824-1901, her father)
Ludwig Friedrich

2 Ludwig & Eva Friedrich
(1822-1906, her parents)
Ludwig + Eva Friedrich, geb. Schmitt

4 My grandfather’s diary notes (in German kurrent script):

6 Responses to ‘Ada Lovelace Day 2010’

  1. Lisa

    What a fantastic story Martin, Thanks so much for taking the time to not only write it but to translate it as well :)

  2. Divya

    Wow that is so awesome! I am in awe that you still possess all these ancient photos and diaries!

  3. Joni.T

    Great story, Martin! Next time we visit Kransberg we will spend some time in memory of this certain aspect of women in technology, which – due to your Ada Lovelace Day contribution – remains unforgotten.

  4. Martin Kliehm

    @divya Joseph Odenweller is really handsome, and judging by the fashion, the pictures of her parents must have been taken around 1880. I love how her father has to lean on the watering can, I suppose the picture took about a minute or so to expose. Also the brand name on the washing trough is hilarious, as “Waschk√∂nig” literally means “washing king.” ;)

  5. Kris

    A great post Martin – very cool to know so much of your family’s history!

  6. Martin Kliehm

    @Kris that’s just the tip of the iceberg. My grandpa did a lot of genealogical research. He lost a leg in World War One when he was only 19, thus he chose hobbies where he could sit. My father once told me they used to have big piles of old church registers at home. As a side effect my grandfather forbade my uncle to volunteer in WWII. I think he learned his lesson.