Female Inventors


Hypatia of Alexandria

A.D. 370 – 415

A martyr to feminine intellect.

Hypatia of Alexandria is the earliest woman scientist whose life is well documented; she was also the last scientist of the Golden Age of Pericles, before enlightenment gave way to the Dark Ages. Her martyrdom has had more of an impact on the history than her inventions, although the hydroscope itself—the first laboratory instrument to measure the specific gravity of liquids—was a breakthrough.

Born in Alexendria in A.D. 370, Hypatia came into a rarefied intellectual world. Her father, Theon, was a mathematician and astronomer at the Museum at Alexandria, and Hypatia was his prize pupil. She studied in Athens and Italy, and she became a lecturer and writer in the fields of mathematics, philosophy, astronomy and mechanics. Her classes were attended by students from throughout the known world, and her treatise on algebra, Arithmetica, was a thirteen-volume definitive study.

Practical technology was Hypatia's main interest, which led to her invention of the pane astrolabe, used to measure the positions of the sun and stars and to calculate the ascendant sign of the zodiac. It consisted of a pair of rotating discs made of open-work metal, rotating one on top of the other around a removable peg. Hypatia perfected the device to the point where it could accurately solve problems in spherical astronomy.

She also invented a device for measuring the level of water and another system for distillation, as well as the hydrometer. The hydrometer—or hydroscope—was a sealed tube about the size of a flute, weighted at one end. The depth to which the hydrometer sunk in a particular liquid gave a reading on the substances, specific gravity.

Hypatia never married, although she was courted by and kept company with many of Alexandria's movers and shakers. Unhappily, these connections did not save her from the fanatical Christian sects whose influence was becoming increasingly felt. During her lifetime, intellectualism gave way to findamentalism, and to religious dogma. In A.D. 389 the Serapeum Library was sacked and burned by order of Theophilos, bishop of Alexandria. All neo-Platonists were persecuted, and Hypatia became a controversial figure because of her fame and influence.

In A.D. 412 Cyril, the patriarch of Alexandria, vowed to rid the city of neo-Platonist "heretics." Hypatia was urged by her friends to renouce her thinking—and her teaching— but she refused. In March of A.D. 415, a group of overzealous monks took Cyril's ranting to heart and murdered Hypatia for her beliefs.

Socrates Scholasticus described the scene: "They pulled her out of her chariot, they hale her to the church called Caesarium; they strip her stark naked; they raze the skin and rend the flesh of her body with sharp shells, until the breath is departed out of her body; they quarter her body, the bring her quarters unto a place called Cinaron, and burn them to ashes."

It would be a thousand years until the world saw a rebirth of the pure science that Hypatia stood for...and died for.

Female Inventors