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Greatest female geeks

Keira Daley. Picture: Stephen Lead

Most of us have heard of Marie Curie, the Polish/French physicist who invented a theory of radioactivity that secured her place in the history books as the first woman to win a Nobel Prize.

But have you heard of Ada Lovelace - who arguably invented the world's first computer program - or Bette Nesmith Graham, the inventor of Liquid Paper? (You might know her as the mother of Mike Nesmith, from 1960s pop band the Monkees).

If not, comic actress and writer Keira Daley wants to give you something of a history lesson.

Her award-winning history-meets-comedy variety show, LadyNerd, will be one of the must-see events of Fringe World 2014, which kicks off later this month.

Daley's own origins as a studious high school geek have much to do with the development of this time-travelling show, which celebrates women throughout history who have invented, educated, or otherwise set the bar high in fields across the arts and sciences.

"I happily stake claim to the title of LadyNerd," Daley laughs. "I studied a lot in school, and was always interested in things that weren't necessarily cool, although I thought they were super-cool. I was really into the Amiga 500 computer when I started high school and

no one else really knew or cared what that was."

"Geek chic" may be all the rage in pop culture these days, but being a nerd at school, it doesn't necessarily do you any favours, as Daley readily admits. As LadyNerd proves, it is sometime easier to be smart when you are also extremely funny to boot.

"One thing I do say in the show is 'I'd rather be right than happy', which is a bit what I was like in school," Daley laughs. "I couldn't keep my mouth shut. It doesn't easily win you friends being a nerd, but when you find your people,

you really do find your people."

The Sydney-based writer and performer says it was a fun but difficult task to whittle down the reams of research she gathered on the world's greatest female geeks into a one-hour show. Who do you include and who do you leave out?

"I started by researching inventors, looking up various fields of endeavour and structuring my show, at least originally, around subject areas," she explains.

"The turning point for the selection was the ones that I found dramatically inspiring - that's where it went from being a bunch of research to a creative thing. What excited my imagination? What could I portray as an actor?"

One of her most exciting discoveries was Ada Lovelace, the illegitimate daughter of notorious Romantic poet Lord Byron.

"Ada's mother, Annabella Milbanke, was also a LadyNerd," Daley explains. "They fled from Byron when Ava was only a baby because of what she referred to as his 'whims and manias'. Her mother was absolutely determined that she would not become a 'mad artist'."

An education in mathematics and science ensued and when Ada was 19 she met and befriended Charles Babbage, the godfather of modern computing.

"Babbage essentially built the first model for a computer; what Ada did was to interpret an Italian paper into English and provide footnotes, one of which was an algorithm for the computer - ie, the world's first computer program.

"This thing that Babbage had theorised would change the world, and Ada saw it. She knew you could create a machine to make pictures, create music, and write with. So she was basically the world's first female computer geek."

Daley describes her show as "pacey and varied in style", with each character's vignette portrayed in a different genre. Nesmith-Graham's section, for example, is performed in the style of a film noir detective story; in another section Daley lists 10 LadyNerds and performs quick one-liners in a newsy, topical style.

Elsewhere, she uncovers the other life of glamorous 1940s screen siren Hedy Lamarr, who, apart from her film credits (Boom Town, White Cargo), also invented frequency hopping, which is now used in wi-fi technology.

"Hedy Lamarr was extremely beautiful but she was also very clever and another fascinating, quotable character," Daley says. "The first line I have her say is her own words is 'Any girl can be glamorous, all you have to do is stand still and look stupid'."

I wonder, is Daley's show motivated by a feeling that even now, in the so-called post-feminist age, we are still more likely to celebrate women for their beauty or their sex appeal than for their educational accomplishments?

"It is inherently a feminist piece but it's not overt about it at all," Daley says. "We just look at the achievements and how these real-life stories are just as compelling and fun and daring as any reality TV show or any other aspect of pop culture. I mean, I love pop culture but I do get depressed when style wins over substance over and over again."