“Embellish your Country with useful inventions & elegant productions”

If, as David Ogilvy said, diversity is the mother of invention then the technology media and telecoms sector is missing out on untold opportunities to innovate, stuffed as it is with people who look like me, white and male. I’m proud to work for a company that wants to change this.

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology.

When I pledged to “publish a blog post on Tuesday 24th March about a woman in technology whom I admire but only if 1,000 other people will do the same,” I wanted to reflect my interest in the history of innovation. It could so easily have been Rosalind Franklin or Marie Curie or even the Countess of Lovelace herself. The great Eleanor Coades (both of them!) came within a stone’s throw.

But as I Googled around the subject I was repeatedly drawn back to a woman who never, so far as I know, conducted an experiment or wrote a scientific paper in her life. I was a little worried about the thinness of her credentials, but then Suw’s brief for the blog post did say we could interpret technology “widely”, and that the woman in question could be dead.

Besides, my subject was a powerful force in 18th Century London society, a financial backer of remarkable businesses in a remarkable time and place, and a woman who understood how the arts and sciences were inextricably linked.

Introducing Mrs Elizabeth Montagu, the Queen of the Blues

Born Elizabeth Robinson in Yorkshire in 1718, she married the banker Charles Montagu. At her “blue stocking” gatherings she played host to writers, actors, philosophers and inventors. And taking on the family business after the death of her husband she funded start-ups including that of Matthew Boulton, one of Birmingham’s “Lunar Men.”

After a visit to Boulton’s Soho Works in 1772, she wrote of his enterprise as a force for good in a wartorn world:

“To behold the secrets of Chymistry, & the mechanick powers, so employ’d, & exerted, is very delightful. I consider the Machines you have at work as so many useful working subjects to Great Brittain of your own Creation: the exquisite Taste in the forms which you give them to work upon, is another National advantage. I had rather see my Country in continual contention of arts than of arms. The Victories of Soho, over every other Manufacture, instead of making Widows & Orphans, as happens even to the conquering side in War, makes marriages & Christenings…”

She concludes in a phrase that prefigures William Morris by 100 years:

“Go on then Sir to triumph over the French in taste, & to embellish your Country with useful inventions & elegant productions.”

Elizabeth Montagu, Georgian venture capitalist, social networker extraordinaire, with a social conscience and a feel for the combined force of art and science.

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

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