Richard Shephard’s Fab Five: The First Computer Programmer, The Father of Science Fiction & More

Watercolor portrait of Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (Ada Lovelace). By Alfred Edward Chalon, 1840.

Watercolor portrait of Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (Ada Lovelace). By Alfred Edward Chalon, 1840.

This is the fifth part in our weekly Fab Five Series, where I ask other bloggers, writers, podcasters and friends to give their five favorite historical figures. The criteria is up to them…so is the work!

My name is Richard Shepherd. I’m interested in history in general and the Victorian age in particular. I chose my 5 historical figures because they were not typical of the society they lived in. Some rebelled against racism, sexism or the religious views of the time. Others were concerned with what wonders the future might bring, and how to make it happen. I can be found on Twitter as @rshepherd1964.
Ada Lovelace (10 December 1815 – 27 November 1852) worked with Charles Babbage while he was developing his analytical engine. He saw it as a replacement for the inaccurate tables used by the financial system. She predicted that in the future similar devices would be useful not only in finance but also science and the arts, possibly even being used to create music. Today she is often thought of as the world’s first computer programmer. If Babbage had built his engine using Ada Lovelace’s operating system, what technology would we be using today?

Photograph of Jules Verne by Félix Nadar, circa 1878.

Photograph of Jules Verne by Félix Nadar, circa 1878.

Jules Verne (8 February – 24 March 1905) trained as a lawyer before becoming a writer. Although his voyages extraordinaires – Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea and Around The World In 80 Days – won him some recognition in his lifetime, he only achieved lasting fame after his death. I include him here because his books inspired me so much as a child. And I was in good company. Others who were inspired by Verne either in their choice of career or to develop a technology include Richard Bird, Sir Ernest Shackleton, Guglielmo Marconi, Simon Lake, Jaques Cousteau, Robert Ballard, Alberto Santos-Dumont, Igor Sikorsky, Hermann Oberth, Robert Goddard, Werner von Braun and Yuri Gagarin.

Portrait of Mary Kingsley, photographer unknown, 1890's.

Portrait of Mary Kingsley, photographer unknown, 1890’s.

Mary Kingsley (13 October – 3 June 1900) was not how most people imagine an intrepid Victorian explorer. She received very little education but was inspired by the books in her father’s library, particularly those about science and exploration. She cared for her parents when they became ill and inherited about £4300 following their deaths. Now she had the means to pursue her dreams she set off to see the world, arriving in Africa in 1893. Wearing the clothes of a typical Victorian woman with a Bowie knife and revolver tucked into her belt, and carrying a suitcase and holdall, Mary enjoyed her first experience of travel. She also discovered 3 new species of fish, which were named after her. She returned to Britain but Victorian society was a suffocating environment for her, and she arrived back in Africa in 1894. Her adventures sound like something from an Indiana Jones film. Once, when travelling by canoe, she was attacked by a crocodile, she fought it off by beating it over the head with a paddle. On another occasion she was attacked by a leopard and smashed a large pot over its head. Her friend Rudyard Kipling said of her “being human she must have been frightened of something, but one never found out what it was”. She wrote 2 books which were well received by scholars, but angered the Church of England when she criticised the activities of missionaries in Africa.

World War I poster of German general Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, by Fritz Grotemeyer, 1918.

World War I poster of German general Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, by Fritz Grotemeyer, 1918.

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (20 March 1870 – 9 March 1964) was the Commanding Officer of the Schutztruppe in German East Africa and the only German commander to successfully invade imperial British territory during World War 1. When war began, he realised that the colonies were only going to be a sideshow compared to events in Europe, and decided that the best way he could serve his country would be to draw as many Allied troops as possible into fighting him, rather than being sent to the Western Front. He then waged what has been described as the most successful guerrilla campaign in history. His forces never numbered more than 14000 mostly black troops, and were often considerably less. Allied troop numbers, in comparison, have been estimated at up to 300,000. And yet they could never land a decisive blow against the Schutztruppe, who had perfected their hit-and-run technique. Their success was due to superb training and discipline and unswerving loyalty to von Lettow-Vorbeck, of whom it has been said “it is probable that no white commander of the era had so keen an appreciation of the African’s worth not only as a fighting man, but as a man”.

Aleister Crowley as Magus, Liber ABA, 1912.

Aleister Crowley as Magus, Liber ABA, 1912.

Aleister Crowley (12 October 1875 – 1 December 1947) was a mountaineer, poet, author and ceremonial magician whom it would be more accurate to describe as notorious rather than famous. His behaviour was frequently appalling, and he once lost a libel case when the judge decided he had no reputation left to lose. For all that he was a highly intelligent man who had travelled very widely and had a lot to say about life. I include him here not for his magical practices or spiritual philosophy but for his autobiography. I have read it at least 40 times now and consider it to be one of the greatest ever written. Constantly witty and often shocking, it is always absorbing.

To check out more posts from the series visit its page here. It gives the rules for playing (none, really) and links to the previous posts.


One thought on “Richard Shephard’s Fab Five: The First Computer Programmer, The Father of Science Fiction & More

  1. seanmunger says:

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    The wonderful “Fab Five” series on Yesterday Unhinged continues! Up to bat this time is Twitter master of odd Victoriana, Richard Shepherd, who has chosen an extremely interesting and eclectic batch of historical figures to showcase. I’m especially interested in his choice of Jules Verne, as I’m planning to do some blog posts related to Jules Verne in the near future. Anyway, take a look, and follow Richard on Twitter if you aren’t already–there are some really fascinating things he posts.

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