When I think of Ada Lovelace 1815-1852, widely recognized as the first computer programmer, I think of a woman with highly curious intellect, vision, superb math skills, and ambition with absolutely no where to apply them in Victorian England. She chose to find men who had position and power and apply her gifts through them, as that was one of the only ways a woman could push her own agenda in that time, but the men she chose failed or betrayed her and she was left with nothing. I cannot begin to imagine this woman’s frustration. It boils my blood.
Ada (Augusta Ada King, née Byron) worked hard. First her mother schooled and worked her hard to try to beat any remnant of her famous father, poet Lord Byron, out of her. That schooling found fertile ground. Ada got a taste for it and was good at it. She longed for more and sought it out over and over again. Knowing what she needed to learn next, she sought out the perfect teachers and mentors, including Mary Somerville, a well-established female math scholar of the time.
Eventually Ada hitched her wagon to Charles Babbage, a famous fickle scientist-inventor. That became a lifelong relationship in which they both benefitted. But, when it was time for Ada to supersede her mentor and manifest her own vision, he turned his back on her. Just. Like. That.
He could do that, because he had all the power and she had none. And that is the story of so many women in the patriarchal industrial complex. Once they were allowed education, they aspired to great intellectual heights and then, were sent home to raise babies. Because to compete with men was not allowed and to supersede men even more disallowed and Ada would have certainly done that.
I want to make a prayer and offering to the unexpressed anger and frustration that must have been felt by these women mathematicians, scientists scholars and writers. Often they were so alone in these feelings because they were viewed as anomalies. Why are you trying to get a man’s job anyway? It’s not normal for a woman to want that and to succeed in that. You must be some kind of freakish variant monster. You don’t belong in that world of men.
I pray for the spirits of these women and ask my sisters who are able to succeed today in professions that are usually reserved for men to please thank their lucky stars and see that we, as a culture, have indeed made progress.
If nasty women writers has taught me anything it is that we as women of all colors and races and religious beliefs have come a long way. Sure, we have a lot further to go, but we have definitely changed our own realities. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that feminism has done nothing for them. That is pure bull-pucky. It has done so much. Has the movement had its flaws that need to be corrected? Certainly. But Ada Lovelace’s reality is not one that any of us would want to live and because of feminism, most of us don’t have to.
Ada does not openly and overtly express her frustration and rage in her letters included in James Essinger’s book, Ada’s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age, but it is there, beneath the kind and patient veneer. One can feel it seething.
She has to try to convince and beg this man Babbage to help her achieve her ambitions and he patently rejects her. That moment of the book broke my heart. How many of us have felt that sting: someone teaching you, building you up as long as you are in service to them, and then, when it looks like you may be about to step out and pursue your own ambition: the dump. Why? Because men/people in power can still do this, but thanks to feminism, there are now other alternatives for women with ambition to pursue. Ada had none. She stayed in relationship to Babbage but the work did not progress. The Analytical Engine never got built and Ada’s vision for its applications had to wait 100 years.
Ada Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron. When I first read that, my breath caught in my chest. (OMG! Really?) But when I tell others that, they often don’t know who he was. Let me just say, he was big in his time! And actually still is.
The poetry foundation describes him as:
“The most flamboyant and notorious of the major English Romantic poets, George Gordon, Lord Byron, was likewise the most fashionable poet of the early 1800s. He created an immensely popular Romantic hero—defiant, melancholy, haunted by secret guilt—for which, to many, he seemed the model”(https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/lord-byron).
Notorious for his poetry as well as his philandering with anyone and everyone of either sex, including cousins and half-sisters, the marriage between him and Ada’s mother did not last. Ada’s parents split up when she was only a month old.
Perhaps this is the early patterning that set Ada up for a life of relationships with disappointing but important men. Though she never met Byron, we can assume he cast a huge shadow over her life and that she longed to know him which would have only been normal. Being famous and absent, he most probably held an inflated and distorted position in her psyche. It is clear she inherited his genius and ambition.
When she was but 17, she met 42-year-old Charles Babbage (1791-1871), an already well-known scientist-inventor.
“He pioneered lighthouse signalling, invented the ophthalmoscope, proposed ‘black box’ recorders for monitoring the conditions preceding railway catastrophes, advocated decimal currency, proposed the use of tidal power once coal reserves were exhausted, designed a cow-catcher for the front end of railway locomotives, failsafe quick release couplings for railway carriages, multi-colored theatre lighting, an altimeter, a seismic detector, a tugboat for winching vessels upstream, a ‘hydrofoil’ and an arcade game for members of the public to challenge in a game of tic-tac-toe”(https://www.computerhistory.org/babbage/charlesbabbage/).
When she met him he was showing off his Difference Engine and speaking of his next project, the Analytical Engine. The Difference Engine is a mechanical calculator, using addition and the method of finite differences. This was much needed at the time as people were using complex charts and tables to help with complex calculations and there were often mistakes of human error. “The Analytical Engine is much more than a calculator and marks the progression from the mechanized arithmetic of calculation to fully-fledged general-purpose computation” (https://www.computerhistory.org/babbage/engines/).
This was the age of the machine and all kinds of inventions were being floated or created. Both Ada and Babbage were inspired by the development of the Jacquard loom. And truly the punch card system of the Jacquard loom deserves a lot of credit for the evolution of thought and genius that ended up being the computers we hold in our hands today.
Understand that what computers were then is not what we think of today but the line of thinking, the systems that were set up and invented, the ways to process information and store memory, and teach a machine how to think originated at this time with these people and Ada Lovelace was a big part of that. It would be worthwhile to watch the many YouTube videos about the Jacquard loom and its punch cards to see how that slowly evolved into the computers we know today. I am 59 so I remember punch cards in early computers but many young people may not.
I recommend the YouTube video “Early Programming: Crash Course in Computer Science #10″ for readers like me who find images helpful for understanding. This video shows the Jacquard loom in operation and explains how that became the basis for future computer programming.
“In 1833, the most ingenious and versatile textile machine in the world was a French silk-weaving loom developed in the early years of the nineteenth century by Joseph-Marie Jacquard, a master silk-weaver from Lyons, and patented by him in 1804. It was this machine that fascinated Ada.
…The Jacquard loom…[allowed] one weaver to create the images automatically, using a long chain of punched cards that controlled the complex configuration of warp threads when an image was being woven into silk” (Loc 1065).
The punch cards were a way to literally insert programs into a machine. This invention sparked creativity in many. The Jacquard loom speeded up the weaving process exponentially and also allowed for more complex patterns and designs to be available to more people at a lower cost.
“Ada’s imagination was set alight by the idea of any machine, like the Jacquard loom, that, once designed and built, could give humankind revolutionary control over processes that had previously either been impossible to control or else only in an haphazard, erratic way . . .
On the evening of Wednesday, June 5, 1833, Ada went out with her mother . . . to a party in fashionable London. There, Ada was fated to meet that evening the one person in Britain who understood her utterly fascinated interest in mechanical questions . . . a man who was driven in much the same way as she was. His name was Charles Babbage.
As a result of their elective affinity, seventeen-year-old Ada Byron’s insight into the future of calculation would erupt into a new and most radical kind of imagining, and would give her a vision of a kind of Jacquard loom that wove, not silk thread, but arithmetic and mathematics.
In other words: a computer”(loc 1077).
Ada was fascinated by Babbage and his Difference Engine and even more by his Analytical Engine. She understood it better than he and could see the future through it. Through their correspondences and conversations, she helped Babbage further flush out his idea and even further develop its applications. With her mathematical mind, she could understand its algebraic applications. She is credited with creating the first algorithm for the Analytical Engine and devised and explained the properties that are still used in computing today.
The definition of algorithm is: a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer. It is this that Ada is involved in: creating the rules and processes to be fed to the machine to get it to carry out the functions one wishes it to. At a very basic level, it is this that computer programmers still do today. Ada understood that she could teach the computer to think: get it to store information with which to analyze and make deductions once it was programmed appropriately.
To further clarify why the Analytical Engine is called the first computer I include the following quote:
“In his 1864 autobiography, Babbage points out that every formula the Analytical Engine may be required to compute consists of certain algebraic operations to be performed upon given letters, and of certain other modifications depending on the numerical value assigned to the letters. By ‘letters,’ Babbage is referring to letters in algebraic formulae such as 2x = 1; 2y3 = 16, etc., although the machine was designed to handle far more complex formulae than this.
Though his notes describe the machine’s two sets of cards, in practice Babbage used three types of cards, since there were also cards that contained the values to load into the machine. In other words, some cards (the Operation Cards) were to reused to control the actual operations of the machine, others (the Variable Cards) to specify from where in the store the number to be operated on was to be fetched, and still others (the Number Cards) were to specify the actual numbers on which the machine operates. A modern computer program works in an almost identical way” (loc 1599).
In 1835 Ada married a wealthy man who eventually became Earl of Lovelace, making her the Countess of Lovelace, and had three children with him. Though the marriage started out well, him being very supportive of her work and pursuits, he ended up disappointing her for lack of ambition. Perhaps she thought through him she could do great work but alas he had no ambition so “she became determined to find a distinguished mathematical and scientific tutor who would guide and accompany her on her intellectual quest”(loc 1673). And she continued to work with Babbage.
In 1842, Luigi Federico Menabrea wrote a paper on Babbage’s Analytical Engine which Ada translated to English.
“Luigi Federico Menabrea’s paper on the Analytical Engine might have stayed as obscure as the learned Swiss journal in which it was published had not Ada decided that translating it into English would neatly achieve two objects that she considered close to her heart.
Firstly, it would give her the opportunity to publicize the important work being done by her close friend Babbage, of whom she was seeing a good deal more than ever before.
Secondly, the translation work would allow her to advance her dream of having an intellectual career which would lift her above the demands of motherhood, running three homes and looking after a wealthy but ineffectual husband” (loc 1994).
Ada translated Menabrea’s paper written about the Analytical Engine and added Notes to the translation that were longer than the paper itself. These Notes include what many see as the first algorithm. The notes display her mastery of the subject and her vision for the future. Essinger points out that in the notes Ada is
“seeking to do nothing less than invent the science of computing and separate it from the science of mathematics. What she calls ‘the science of operations’ is indeed in effect computing.
Unlike Babbage, Ada saw the practical uses of the Analytical Engine and foresaw the digitization of music as CDs or synthesizers and their ability to generate music”(loc 2235).
In 1843, after completing the translation, feeling confident in herself and even more confident in the Analytical Engine, Ada wrote Babbage a letter with a proposition. She offered to help him raise the funds to actually build the Analytical Engine and be the front person to do that, the public face of the project. Babbage did not get along well with people and did not have what it took to schmooze and acquire the support he needed. Ada did have those capabilities. Also, Babbage was easily distracted and she wanted him to commit to focusing solely on completing the Analytical Engine while she worked on raising the money and support to finally see the project through.
She says to Babbage in the letter:
“Do not reckon me conceited, for I am sure I am the very last person to think over-highly of myself, but I believe I have the power of going just as far as I like in such pursuits, & where there is so very decided a taste, I should almost say a passion, as I have for them, I question if there is not always some portion of natural genius even, -At any rate the taste is such that it must be gratified” (loc 1696).
He said no.
“Babbage didn’t accept the offer. He didn’t realize just how brilliant her understanding of his work really was, still less how deep her understanding of his personality was. One wonders how intently he had even read the discursive part of her Notes. If he had read them properly, wouldn’t he have realized just how useful her insights were into the advancement of the Analytical Engine?…
All we know is that the day after Ada wrote this letter, Babbage said no to her without much consideration. At the top of the long letter that Ada sent him on August 14 and which is to be found in the Babbage papers, there appears a pencilled note in Babbage’s hand stating simply:
Tuesday 15 saw AAL this morning and refused all the conditions” (loc 2590).
Once the translation was published, it was mostly ignored because it was written by a woman.
Ada Lovelace died after a very long and painful struggle with cancer at age 36. She is buried next to her father.
Of his book about Lovelace, Essinger writes:
“I hope that this book will make clear that Ada Byron, later Countess of Lovelace, Lord Byron’s only legitimate daughter, should without a doubt be included in that pantheon [of greats in computing history] and on the list of overlooked women who were not encouraged to fulfill their potential merely because of their gender”(Loc 126).
Ada (Byron) Lovelace is a Nasty Woman of STEM
Essinger, James. Ada’s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age. Melville house, London, 2014.