Queens and female coders

Posted on March 8, 2018 | in Edinburgh Libraries, English Literature, International Women's Day, Library, Library, Library & University Collections, Main Library, Muscial Instruments, Museums, St Cecilia's Hall | by

Recommended library museum piece to view on International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day. And this year, which just happens to be 100 years since women have had the right to vote, the theme of the day/year is Press for Progress. To motivate you to think, act and be gender inclusive – we’re sharing a book and museum piece, which are linked to powerful and influential women throughout history.

Dr Sarah Deters is the Learning and Engagement Curator at The University of Edinburgh’s St Cecilia’s Hall – the Concert Room & Music Museum on Niddry Street. She shares a couple items that have inspired her below.

1940s female coders

“I am not sure if I have a favourite book written by a woman, but I really enjoyed the book Code Girls by Liza Mundy, said Dr Deters.

“This non-fiction book follows the journey of a number of American women who were recruited by the US Navy and Army to become cryptanalysts during the Second World War. It was a fascinating book and I really enjoyed learning about this very important, but otherwise forgotten, group of women and the critical work they did during this time.“

At Arlington Hall, a secret African American unit – mostly female, and unknown to many white workers – tackled commercial codes, keeping tabs on which companies were doing business with Hitler or Mitsubishi. Copyright US National Security Agency.

At Arlington Hall, Ann Caracristi (far right), an English major from Russell Sage College, matched wits against Japanese code makers, solving message addresses and enabling military intelligence to develop “order of battle” showing the location of Japanese troops. The messages would then be passed along to Dot Braden and other women whose efforts led to the sinking of Japanese ships. Copyright: US National Security Agency.


Harpsichord fit for a 17th century queen

“On display at St Cecilia’s Hall is a harpsichord, which is not only decorated with paintings of women revelling in what appear to be a bacchanal-like gathering, but is thought to have been owned by a famous and powerful woman,” shared Dr Deters. “The harpsichord was made by Andreas Ruckers in Antwerp in 1608.”

Portrait of Christine of Sweden (1626-1689) by royal court painter Jacob Henry Elbfas dated 1640 or 1642. Copyright: Wikimedia Commons.

“Sometime in the mid-17th century the lid was painted, most likely by the Flemish artist Pieter Codde, who lived from 1619 – 1666. His painting shows a mythical scene complete with a faun and figures representing love, dance and music. My favourite character in the painting is a woman in a vibrant red dress who is playing a lute. Aside from the lovely decoration on this instrument, I really enjoy its provenance. The harpsichord is believed to have been owned by Christina of Sweden, who baulked against the gender norms of her day, was highly educated and was known for her patronage of the arts.”

Double-manual harpsichord by Andreas Ruckers. Copyright: The University of Edinburgh

Check it out

St Cecilia’s Hall is home to the University of Edinburgh’s collection of historic musical instruments.

Opening hours: Tues-Sat, 10 am- 5 pm

Location: 50 Niddry Street, Edinburgh EH1 1LG

The University of Edinburgh’s Main Library is celebrating its 50th anniversary at George Square – where connections come alive. The library is currently creating an archive of current and former students and staff memories. Submit your memories via our website, Facebook or Twitter pages #UoElib50. Photos and videos are welcome!


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