Ada Lovelace and the IET

by Suw on September 25, 2012

We are privileged to be holding Ada Lovelace Day Live! at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) this year, because of our partnership with the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). As you’ve probably noticed, WES will be presenting the prestigious Karen Burt Memorial Award to a newly chartered woman engineer during ALD Live!.

But our presence at the IET is also appropriate for another reason: held in the IET archives are letters from Ada Lovelace to Michael Faraday, a letter from Lovelace’s close friend Charles Babbage to Faraday, and portraits of both Lovelace and Babbage. When I visited, IET archivist Sarah Hale was kind enough to arrange for me to see the letters and Lovelace’s portrait, although sadly the room where Babbage’s hangs was in use at the time.

Lovelace to FaradayThe IET has a number of letters from Lovelace to Faraday, including this one from 16 October 1844 (note: capitalisation, underlines, punctuation and spelling as per originals):

Dear Mr Faraday,

I have never yet thanked you for the little paper you sent me this spring. I read it with the deepest attention & interest, & it has suggested to me some very curious (& perhaps important) considerations for my own future use an an Analyst; considerations which fell in with some previous trains of ideas I had been long gradually forming, but which you have called into more tangible existence in my mind.

Perhaps no one has read your paper with such full appreciation as myself of it’s practical bearings; or has valued it so justly, both for it’s contents, & as presented to me by it’s Author, for whom I entertain an esteem little short of reverence.

Lovelace to Faraday 2Ada was keen to persuade Faraday to tutor her in maths, although Faraday was 53 by this time and, whilst flattered by her attentions, he was probably also a bit perturbed by this feisty young lady asking for tutelage. Lovelace wrote, on 10 November 1844:

Dear Mr Faraday,

I am exceedingly tickled with your comparison of yourself to a tortoise. It has excited all my fun (& I assure you I have no little of that in me).

I am also struck with the forcible truth of your designation of my character of mind:

elasticity of intellect“.

It is indeed the very truth, most happily put into language.

You have excited in my mind a ridiculous, but not ungraceful, allegorical picture, viz:

that of a quiet demure plodding tortoise, with a beautiful fairy gambolling round it in a thousand radiant & varying hues; the tortoise crying out, “Fairy, fairy, I am not like you. I cannot at pleasure assume a thousand aerial shapes & expand myself over the face of the universe. Fairy, fairy, have mercy on me, & remember I am but a tortoise“.

Babbage to Faraday

(You can read letter in full via scans kindly provided by the IET: part 1, part 2, part 3 & part 4.)

In an earlier letter held by the IET and dated 9 September 1843 Babbage writes to Faraday about Lovelace:

My dear Faraday,

I am not quite sure whether I thanked  you for a kind note imputing to me unmeritedly the merit of a present you received I conjecture from Lady Lovelace.

I now send you what out to have accompanied that Translation.

So you will now have to write another not so that Enchantress who has thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of Sciences and has grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects (in our own country at least) could have exerted over it. I remember well your first interview with the youthfull fairy which she herself has not forgotten and I am gratefull to you both for making my drawings rooms the Chateau D’Eu of Science.

Despite all the fairies and enchantresses bandied about by Lovelace and Babbage, Faraday never did acquiesce to Lovelace’s wishes that he let her become his pupil.

Portrait of Ada LovelaceThe portrait of Lovelace that hangs in a corridor outside the Lovelace Room is actually a copy by Mary Remington of the 1836 portrait by Margaret Sarah Carpenter, about which Lovelace joked:

“I conclude she is bent on displaying the whole expanse of my capacious jaw bone, upon which I think the word Mathematics should be written.”

Lovelace’s letters will be available to view during Ada Lovelace Day Live! in one of the display cabinets in the IET foyer.

If you’d like to see the letters and portraits, and are feeling generous, then the IET has offered Ada Lovelace Day supporters a tour at 2pm on 16 October as a part of our fundraiser.

Members of the public can also organise their own tour of the building and archives directly with the IET. Tours are free and usually last an hour.

Email: archives@theiet.org
Tel: 0207 3448407
The IET Archives

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