Ada Lovelace: Victorian computing visionary
This extract is a chapter from the women in STEM anthology, A Passion For Science: Tales of Discovery and Invention. Including contributions from Dr Helen Czerski, Bill Thompson, Aleks Krotoski, Professor Christopher Riley and many more, A Passion for Science is available now for £5.99 (ebook only).
by Suw Charman-Anderson
The idea that the 1840s saw the birth of computer science as we know it today may seem like a preposterous one, but long before the Bombe, the Colossus or the Harvard Mark I, long before any computer was actually built, came a remarkable woman whose understanding of computing remained unparalleled and unappreciated for 100 years. Brought up in an era when women were routinely denied education, she saw further into the future than any of her male counterparts, and her work influenced the thinking of one of World War II’s greatest minds.
Born The Honourable Augusta Ada Byron, the woman we know of today as Ada Lovelace began her life in a turbulent household. She was the only legitimate daughter of George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron and Anne Isabella Milbanke, 11th Baroness Wentworth, or Annabella as she called herself. Their short marriage imploded just a month after Ada was born.
Annabella was an incredibly intelligent woman who was educated by former Cambridge University professors in classical literature, philosophy, science and maths. She particularly enjoyed maths and Byron called her his “princess of parallelograms”. But Annabella was also a stiff, religious woman with strict morals, and was sometimes described as cold and prim.
Byron, on the other hand, was the original cad. He was “mad, bad and dangerous to know” according to Lady Caroline Lamb, Annabella’s cousin, who had an affair with Byron before his marriage. Annabella probably should have taken this as the warning it was — Lamb never really got over her break-up with Byron — but perhaps she instead took it as a challenge. Maybe she saw Byron as a soul that needed saving from his lascivious and immoral ways. Whatever her motivations, Annabella and Byron wed in January 1815 and Ada was born on December 10 that same year.
The marriage, however, wasn’t a happy one. Byron was moody, drank too much and behaved erratically, having at least one affair with a London chorus girl called Susan Boyce. There were rumours of violence and abuse. And then the financial troubles hit. Byron suggested that Annabella remove herself to her parents’ estate at Kirkby Mallory, and take Ada with her, whilst he sorted things out.
Worried that he had succumbed to madness, Annabella engaged a physician to visit the family and secretly assess Byron’s state of mind. The physician recommended that she do as Byron wished, and in January 1816 the couple separated. Although their separation began amicably enough, it soon turned acrimonious and Byron left England for Italy to escape a burgeoning sexual scandal. Ada never met her father, and he died when she was eight years old.
Parenting styles were different in the early 19th century, and Annabella wasn’t the doting mother that we might these days assume she should be. Indeed, Ada was brought up mostly by her grandmother, Judith, The Honourable Lady Milbanke. Annabella didn’t seem to show much affection for her daughter, referring to Ada as ‘it’ in one letter to her mother:
“I talk to it for your satisfaction, not my own, and shall be very glad when you have it under your own.”
Judith died when Ada was six, and the young girl was then looked after by a series of nannies, a common practice at the time, and educated by tutors that her mother appointed.
Ada loved machines. She spent hours poring over diagrams of new inventions and eagerly devouring any new periodical journals she could get her hands on. She began to design boats and steam-powered flying machines for her own amusement.
This unusual preoccupation was encouraged by Annabella, who ensured that Ada was taught by some of the very finest minds in England. Having enjoyed a first class education herself, Annabella was determined that Ada should have the same, arranging for a series of teachers to give Ada a solid grounding in science and mathematics.
Her motivation wasn’t entirely focused on expanding Ada’s mind, however: Annabella was terrified that Ada might have inherited the madness of her father. She saw the close study of mathematics and science as a way to instil some mental discipline and, hopefully, drive out any demons that might otherwise plague Ada.
Indeed, in later life, Ada herself said that her study of mathematics helped with the mental instabilities that she does indeed seem to have interited from her father. She wrote to her husband that “nothing but a very close and intense application to subjects of a scientific nature now seems at all to keep my imagination from running wild, or to stop the void which seems to be left in my mind.” However, Ada also wrote to her tutor De Morgan’s wife that she had determined that “too much mathematics” had caused her to have a breakdown, so her internal jury was obviously out on maths’ effectiveness for the control of her mental problems.
That tutor, Augustus De Morgan, was one of Ada’s most important teachers. He was a mathematician at the forefront of the emerging field of symbolic logic. It was, without doubt, De Morgan who encouraged Ada to further study mathematics, and she impressed him mightily with her capabilities. Had Ada been a man, he said, she would have had the potential to become “an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence”.
But De Morgan worried that her focus on maths was damaging her health. Ada had been a sickly child, suffering headaches that affected her vision from around age eight. Then in 1829, when she was 13, she caught the measles which left her paralysed and confined to bed for a year. She did recover, but it was a slow, arduous journey to the point where, in 1831, she could walk again, on crutches.
De Morgan worried that her health would suffer further if she studied too hard. He said of her maths problems that, “the very great tension of mind which they require is beyond the strength of a woman’s physical power of application.”
But Ada did apply herself and she did conquer her maths problems.
Another of Ada’s tutors was Mary Somerville, the Scottish astronomer and mathematician. Mary had become famous in 1831 when she published The Mechanism of the Heavens, a translation of the five volume Mécanique Céleste by Pierre-Simon Laplace. Her translation was published by the wonderfully named Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and soon Somerville was a household name, yet she was a modest woman who said only that she had “translated Laplace’s work from algebra into common language”.
In 1833 Mary introduced Ada to another mathematician, Charles Babbage. Ada was 18 and Babbage was 42. It was a friendship that would change Ada’s life.
Big tables of numbers
Charles Babbage was an inventor and mechanical engineer; given Ada’s fascination for machines, it was only natural that the two become fast friends. Ada was captivated by Babbage’s inventions and he was impressed by her intellect, analytical skills and mathematical ability.
Babbage was working on a mechanical adding machine that he called the Difference Engine. At the time, any maths that required logarithmic or trigonometric functions forced the mathematician to refer to large tables of numbers that had been worked out by hand. Unfortunately, these tables were prone to error and if an incorrect value was used in the calculations the mathematician’s result would also be incorrect. It was Babbage’s mission to use the Difference Engine to calculate these tables flawlessly.
The British Government was most interested in such a machine — or rather they were most interested in error-free log and trig tables that could be relied upon to give the correct answer. They invested some £17,000 — now equivalent to about £1.7 million — in the Difference Engine, hoping that Babbage would build it and start producing these vital tables.
Babbage, however, had other ideas. He gave up on the Difference Engine before it was finished and started work on a more complex machine, the Analytical Engine. The British Government was unimpressed and refused to fund Babbage’s new project, much to his disgust. It seems Babbage never quite grasped the idea that his funding was dependent on the production of those perfect tables of numbers, tables which never came to exist. Had he delivered, perhaps he would have found it easier to continue raising money.
The Analytical Engine was, however, a major leap forward, so it’s easy to understand why Babbage might have abandoned the Difference Engine in the light of this new, more powerful machine. It was a general purpose computing machine that had all the elements of a modern computer, including an arithmetical unit, conditional branching and loops, and integrated memory.
It could also be programmed to do complex computations using punched cards, just like the Jacquard loom and the early modern computers built in the 1940s such as the Harvard Mark I. Babbage even designed a printer to go with it.
But, like its predecessor, the Analytical Engine was never built. In fact, Babbage never quite finished the design, tinkering with it throughout his life.
Marriage and family life
On 8 July 1835, aged just 19, Ada became Baroness King when she married William King the 8th Baron King. King was ten years her senior, and over the next four years, the couple had three children: Byron, born May 1836; Anne Isabella, born September 1837; and Ralph Gordon, born July 1839. After the birth of Anne Isabelle, also called Annabella like her grandmother, Ada fell ill again for several months.
In 1838, King was created 1st Earl of Lovelace, and Ada became the Right Honourable the Countess of Lovelace. In correspondence she signed herself Augusta Ada Lovelace, or AAL, and we know her today simply as Ada Lovelace.
Her marriage to King was, in some ways, a mirror image of her parents’ marriage, but with their roles reversed. King was a bit humourless, possibly even abusive and was described at the time as a “figure more of fear than affection”. Lovelace was an unconventional woman, fiercely intelligent and independent. She became a materialist and, in her later years, an atheist, which was quite in opposition to the strict Christianity of her mother and husband.
She also found it very easy to strike up friendships and often found herself the object of men’s affections. When she was a teenager, she had had an affair with a tutor, with whom she had attempted to elope. But his relatives had recognised her — she was a well-known society figure because of her father and station — and her mother had covered up the scandal.
Later in life her children’s tutor, William Benjamin Carpenter, attempted to coax her into another affair. Once she realised what was going on, she ended her association with him. However, her easy-going, charming nature and willingness to converse and correspond with members of the opposite sex meant that there were often rumours of affairs in amongst the court gossip. The fact that she was Byron’s daughter cannot have helped matters either.
The Menabrea paper
Despite any differences in personality and outlook, King did support Ada’s work and ambitions, much more so than many men would have at the time. Throughout this period Lovelace and Babbage’s friendship flourished and she studied his plans for the Analytical Engine in depth, becoming an expert on its workings.
In 1842, Babbage gave a lecture about the Analytical Engine at the University of Turin. In the audience was an Italian engineer, Luigi Menabrea whose notes were eventually published in the Bibliothèque Universelle de Genève. Babbage’s friend Charles Wheatstone then commissioned Lovelace to translate the paper, which had been written in French, which she did. Babbage then asked Lovelace to expand on the original, “as she understood the machine so well”. Lovelace set to work, adding individual notes, each labelled with a letter. When she was done, she had tripled the original paper’s length.
In her notes, Lovelace suggests that symbolic logic, which she’d learnt about from De Morgan, could be applied to the Analytical Engine. And in Note G, the final note, she described a number of what we would now call programs to enable the Analytical Engine to do computations without the answers having been calculated by human hand first.
At the time, machines such as the automata which mimicked humans and animals using clockwork were well known at court. In the middle of the 18th Century, Frenchman Pierre Jaquet-Droz had masterminded the creation of three automata: the musician, the draughtsman and the writer. All three, which still exist and still work, can carry out the tasks for which they are named, but in a limited way. A complex series of cams — shaped, rotating disks — control the automata, allowing them to act out a pre-determined series of movements which results in music, drawings and writing. Lovelace would have at the very least seen the Silver Lady, a female automaton which could “bow and put up her eyeglass at intervals, as if to passing acquaintances” which Babbage had bought.
This is conjecture, but perhaps Lovelace was keen to stress that the Analytical Engine produced results without human interference not just to draw a distinction between it and the earlier Difference Engine, but also automata. The Difference Engine had never been built, but automata were a relatively common court spectacle and might have been the first point of comparison for people unfamiliar with Babbage’s work. Whatever her motivation, Lovelace was right: The Analytical Engine really was in a league of its own.
“The bounds of arithmetic were however outstepped the moment the idea of applying the cards had occurred;” she wrote, “and the Analytical Engine does not occupy common ground with mere ‘calculating machines.’ It holds a position wholly its own; and the considerations it suggests are most interesting in their nature. In enabling mechanism to combine together general symbols in successions of unlimited variety and extent, a uniting link is established between the operations of matter and the abstract mental processes of the most abstract branch of mathematical science.”
One set of numbers that Lovelace focused on were Bernoulli Numbers, as suggested to her by Babbage. These are a complex numerical system first described by the Swiss mathematician Jakob Bernoulli, who died in 1705. But really, she could have chosen any complex series — the point of the exercise was not to find out what the Bernoulli Numbers were, but to show that they could be calculated by the machine, on its own, from first principles.
Note G described how to break down the algebra into simple formulae, and then how to code those formulae as instructions for the Analytical Engine. Although there were earlier sketches for programs that had been prepared by Babbage, Lovelace’s were the most elaborate and complete, and they were the first to be published.
It is for this achievement that Lovelace is known as the first computer programmer: She was the first person to write and publish a full set of instructions that a computing device could use to reach an end result that had not been calculated in advance.
A bigger vision
Lovelace’s understanding of Babbage’s Analytical Engine was so deep that it surpassed that of Babbage himself. She looked beyond those huge tables of perfect numbers that Babbage wanted the machine to calculate and saw its full potential.
It could, Lovelace suggested, create music or graphics, were it to be given the right inputs. The Analytical Engine, she wrote, “weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.”
This idea of a general computer, more than Note G, was a groundbreaking one. It is clear from her notes that this was not just a random flight of fancy, it was a concept she had thought hard about and she had a solid grasp on the theory behind it. She wrote:
“[The Analytical Engine] might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine. Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”
Of course, neither Lovelace nor Babbage had the benefit of our modern terminology, and Lovelace had to define her concepts carefully so that her intent remained clear. For example:
“It may be desirable to explain, that by the word operation, we mean any process which alters the mutual relation of two or more things, be this relation of what kind it may. This is the most general definition, and would include all subjects in the universe.”
The concept of a general computer that could do anything, given the right program and inputs, was an extraordinary leap for Lovelace to make and one that many of her male peers struggled to understand. It is no exaggeration to say that she was 100 years ahead of her time.
Even after Lovelace had made this huge conceptual leap, essentially describing much of what we consider fundamental to modern computer science, she continued to expand on the education her mother had arranged for her. Her personality and desire for knowledge is nowhere epitomised more than in a letter to Michael Faraday that she wrote in 1844, aged 28.
Faraday, one of the most influential scientists in history especially in the field of electricity, was a devout Christian and a Sandemanian, a denomination of the Church of Scotland. He was a humble but self-disciplined man, as well as an eloquent and passionate public speaker.
Ada was keen to become his pupil. In fact, ‘keen’ might have been an understatement. She was, in modern terms, a bit of a fangirl, saying in a letter to him that she “entertain[ed] an esteem little short of reverence” for him. In another letter, dated 1844 — thus making her 28 at the time and him 53 — she wrote (emphasis as per original):
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, for his part, tried to put in a good word for Lovelace with Faraday, calling her the “Enchanted Maths Fairy”, and writing:
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 note 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.
No amount of fairies or enchantresses could change Faraday’s mind, however, and he never did acquiesce to her request to tutor her.
Early to rise, early to bed
Lovelace’s brilliance had become obvious very early on in her life but, however strong the powers of her mind, she couldn’t prevent her body’s frailty from betraying her. She had suffered and recovered from cholera, but now she developed uterine cancer, an illness from which she would never recover.
Annabella sat constantly beside Ada’s bedside as her condition deteriorated, and — perhaps out of concern for her daughter’s immortal soul — did all that she could to force her to convert to Christianity. She even went so far as to withhold her morphine, the painkiller that would have made Ada’s suffering a little more bearable. It is said that Ada did indeed convert, but how much stock can be put in a deathbed conversion under the duress of an agonising death we cannot say.
Ada died on 27 November 1852 at just 36 years old, the same age as her father.
Although Annabella had forbidden Ada from seeing a portrait of Byron until she was 20, Ada had come to know him, as much as she could given that she had been so young when he died. She had read his poetry, though she cared little for it, saying “I shall be a better analyst [mathematician] than my father ever was a poet!”
The older Ada got, the more she identified with her father, writing once that she understood his impulses as she too hated any kind of restraint. In the end, she chose to be buried next to him at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottingham.
A computing legacy
It’s fair to say that Babbage’s Analytical Engine was a computing evolutionary cul-de-sac. It was never built. Lovelace never had the opportunity to test her program on it. And Babbage never produced those large, error-free tables of numbers that the British Government so desired.
But Lovelace’s ideas found their way into modern computing via Alan Turing. During WWII, as he was working at Bletchley Park on decoding German communications, Turing discovered Lovelace’s Menabrea translation and its attendant notes. They were critical documents that helped to shape his thinking.
Indeed, in his seminal paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence Turing explored the question “Can machines think?”, promptly launching the field of artificial intelligence. He also listed “contrary views” on his position that machines could at least imitate thinking, and discusses what he calls Lady Lovelace’s Objection.
Lovelace had written, “The Analytical Engine has no pretensions to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform”, which might be taken to mean that her position was that machines could not learn, or create anything original. However, Turing points out that “the evidence available to Lady Lovelace did not encourage her to believe” that machines could be so capable.
He goes on to say, “The Analytical Engine was a universal digital computer, so that, if its storage capacity and speed were adequate, it could by suitable programming be made to mimic the machine in question. Probably this argument did not occur to the Countess or to Babbage. In any case there was no obligation on them to claim all that could be claimed.”
Turing, of course, was working a century after Lovelace and could benefit not just from all of the technological developments and advances in scientific knowledge that had occurred in that time, but also from the different culture that he inhabited.
Lovelace’s culture, remember, still hadn’t developed a concept of machine much beyond the automaton, the clockwork ensemble that mimicked life, but could never create new behaviour. The Writer could write only what it was told to write. The Analytical Engine, on the other hand, could produce an answer that it had worked out for itself based on its inputs and programming.
It is reasonable to argue, however, that it was not just that Lovelace had seen no evidence that machines could act as originators, but that those machines which had appeared to act thus had been frauds. One automaton, in particular, had appeared capable of replicating human thought: The Mechanical Turk was a machine that could not only play chess, but could also reliably win against grandmasters. It toured Europe from 1770 until 1854 and won nearly every match it played. The Mechanical Turk even won a match with Babbage, who said he was sure it was a trick, but he couldn’t see how.
About a decade or so before Lovelace published her translation and notes on the Analytical Engine, the Turk was exposed as a hoax. It was not, in fact, an automaton at all, but a machine driven by a human sitting, probably very uncomfortably, in the box at its base. One can’t help but wonder if Lovelace’s assertion that the Analytical Engine could not originate was as much based on a desire to differentiate it from automata, real or hoaxed, as a belief that it was not possible.
Like many woman who have contributed greatly to the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths through the centuries, Lovelace’s achievements have often been either downplayed or rejected by modern voices. There are two main objections. Firstly, it is said that Lovelace didn’t understand calculus and thus, the logic goes, could not have had the capacity to prepare the Bernoulli program.
It is true that Lovelace struggled with calculus. She wrote to De Morgan in some frustration about the chapter on “notation of functions” that she was studying.
“I do not know when I have been so tantalised by anything,” she said, “and should be ashamed to say how much time I have spent up on it, in vain. These functional equations are complete will-o’-the-wisps to me. The moment I fancy I have really at last got hold of something tangible and substantial, it all recedes further and further & vanishes again into thin air.”
But calculus caused a lot of trouble for even seasoned mathematicians. Charles Dodgson, better known as the author Lewis Carroll, studied maths for four years at Oxford University, came top of his class and went on to lecture maths there. Dodgson said of the subject, “Talked over the Calculus of Variations with Price today; I see no prospect of understanding the subject at all.”
It feels a little harsh to criticise Lovelace for finding calculus tricky when Dodgson, who had the benefit of a formal education at one of the best universities in the world, also found it problematic. Indeed, biographer Dr Betty Alexandra Toole, author of Ada: the Enchantress of Numbers, told me that she showed the De Morgan correspondence to the late Dr Steven Deliberto, then Vice Chairman of the Mathematics department at Berkeley, who stated that Ada was studying what was then considered the forefront of calculus. The fact that we teach calculus at school now should not influence our assessment of the position and understanding of calculus in the 19th century.
A second, and more damning, objection to calling Lovelace the First Computer Programmer comes from the idea that she did not actually write the Bernoulli program. This is a theory that has been put forward by historians, and even by some of her biographers.
Historian Bruce Collier wrote in his 1990 book, The Little Engine That Could’ve:
It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that Babbage wrote the Notes to Menabrea’s paper, but for reasons of his own encouraged the illusion in the minds of Ada and the public that they were authored by her. It is no exaggeration to say that she was a manic depressive with the most amazing delusions about her own talents, and a rather shallow understanding of both Charles Babbage and the Analytical Engine… To me, [correspondence between Ada and Babbage] seems to make obvious once again that Ada was as mad as a hatter, and contributed little more to the Notes than trouble.
Collier isn’t alone in his assertion. Allan G. Bromley and Doron Swade both claimed that Babbage did the work in the years before the 1842 publication of Lovelace’s translation. Benjamin Woolley says that Lovelace made just “some contribution”.
It may be that the confusion, which we’ll generously call it, comes from Babbage’s own autobiography which he wrote when he was nearly 80. In it, he said (emphasis mine):
The elementary principles on which the Analytical Engine rests were thus in the first instance brought before the public by General Menabrea.
Some time after the appearance of his memoir on the subject in the “Bibliothèque Universelle de Genève,” the late Countess of Lovelace informed me that she had translated the memoir of Menabrea. I asked why she had not herself written an original paper on a subject with which she was so intimately acquainted? To this Lady Lovelace replied that the thought had not occurred to her. I then suggested that she should add some notes to Menabrea’s memoir; an idea which was immediately adopted.
We discussed together the various illustrations that might be introduced: I suggested several, but the selection was entirely her own. So also was the algebraic working out of the different problems, except, indeed, that relating to the numbers of Bernoulli, which I had offered to do to save Lady Lovelace the trouble. This she sent back to me for an amendment, having detected a grave mistake which I had made in the process.
The notes of the Countess of Lovelace extend to about three times the length of the original memoir. Their author has entered fully into almost all the very difficult and abstract questions connected with the subject.
We have to ask what Babbage meant by “algebraic working out”. The Bernoulli note is made of up equations, and a table and diagram which describes how the punch cards should be prepared for the programming of the Engine. It is the table and diagram that are the program, not the equations. So even though Babbage worked on the equations — and he did so to save Lovelace time, not because she couldn’t do them herself — that doesn’t mean Lovelace didn’t write what we now consider to be the program.
Their correspondence illuminates the matter further. Lovelace had herself written, “I want to put in something about Bernoulli’s Number, in one of my Notes, as an example of how an explicit function may be worked out by the engine, without having been worked out by human head and hands first.”
She wrote Note G and sent it to Babbage for his feedback. Babbage, sadly, lost it and had to ask Lovelace to have another go, to which she replied, “I suppose I must set to work to write something better, if I can, as a substitute, the same precisely I could not recall.”
Babbage responded to this new version, “I like very much the improved form of the Bernoulli Note but can judge of it better when I have the Diagram and Notation.”
It would have been a most peculiar exchange were the assertion that Babbage wrote the program to be true. Who would say that they would be able to judge something better once they’d been given more information by someone else if they had written it themselves?
A more realistic interpretation is that Babbage and Lovelace collaborated closely, discussing and refining their ideas, Babbage working on some parts, Lovelace on others. That does not detract from her achievements, nor does it lend weight to the claim that Babbage alone wrote the Bernoulli program.
The perfect figurehead for women in STEM
In 2009, when Ada Lovelace was first suggested to me as a figurehead for a day celebrating the achievements of women in technology, she seemed like a great choice. Here was the first ever computer programmer. Not the first woman, the first person. How perfect!
It was only as I discovered more about her story and especially the way in which many modern voices, even including some of her biographers, have downplayed or denied her achievements that I realised what an appropriate choice I had made. Although much has changed in the last two hundred years, many women still find that their contributions to our understanding of the world are either ignored or the accolades go to their male colleagues.
Were Ada alive today, I think she would recognise the problems faced by her female peers. But she’d also recognise our modern computing machines as the very embodiment of her ideas, and she’d immediately set about learning how they worked and how to program them. She didn’t let the conventions of her day slow her down, and she certainly wouldn’t let modern prejudices get in the way either.
Toole, B (2010), Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers: Poetical Science, Sausalito: Critical Connection.
Padua, S, “Lovelace and Babbage — Period Documents”, https://www.diigo.com/list/sydneypadua/lovelace-and-babbage
About the author
Suw Charman-Anderson is the founder of Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths.
She is also a social technologist and, as one of the UK’s social media pioneers, has helped clients worldwide use social tools for collaboration and communication internally and to build customer relationships externally. As a freelance journalist, Suw has written about social media and technology for The Guardian, CIO Magazine, .Net Magazine, Computer Weekly and FirstPost.com. She currently blogs about publishing and crowdfunding for Forbes.com.
Suw has self-published two novellas. The first Argleton, was crowdfunded through Kickstarter. The second, Queen of the May, is available exclusively through her website in an ongoing experiment in direct sales. A keen bookbinder, Suw combines her love for fiction with her passion for the book as a physical artefact.
In 2005, Suw co-founded the Open Rights Group with the aim of raising awareness of digital rights issues and campaigning against bad legislation in Britain and the EU.
Extract from A Passion For Science: Tales of Discovery and Invention, available now for £5.99 (ebook only).