What story are you going to tell us today?
Lucky I know lots of stories! 🙂 How about a story about Ada Lovelace?
Ada Lovelace (née Augusta Byron) was given a famous name before she made her own. Her father was Lord Byron, the bad boy of English Romantic poetry, whose epic mood swings could be topped only by his string of scandalous affairs — affairs with women, men, and his half-sister.
True to character, he was hardly an exemplary father. The first words he spoke to his newly born daughter were, “Oh! What an implement of torture have I acquired in you!”
According to the book Lady Byron and Her Daughters by Julia Markus, less than a month after the birth of their daughter, Lord Byron informed his wife of his intention to continue an affair with a stage actress and three days later wrote Lady Byron telling her to find a convenient day to leave their home. “The child will of course accompany you,” he added. Soon after, Lord Byron left England and never saw his daughter again. He died when Ada Lovelace was 8.
However brief their time in each other’s company, Lord Byron was ever-present in Lovelace’s upbringing — as a model of what not to be. Lady Byron, herself a mathematical wiz called “Princess of Parallelograms” by Lord Byron, believed a rigorous course of study rooted in logic and reason would enable her daughter to avoid the romantic ideals and moody nature of her father. From the age of 4, Ada Lovelace was tutored in mathematics and science, an unusual course of study for a woman in 19th century England. When Ada became sick with the measles, she was bedridden, only permitted to rise to a sitting position thirty minutes a day. Any impulsive behaviour was systematically ironed out.
It may have been a strict upbringing, but Lady Byron did provide her daughter with a solid education — one that would pay off when Lovelace was introduced to the mathematician Charles Babbage. The meeting occurred in the middle of her “season” in London, that time when noblewomen of a certain age were paraded around to attract potential suitors. Babbage was forty-one when he made Lovelace’s acquaintance in 1833. They hit it off. And then he extended the same offer to her that he had to so many: come by to see my Difference Engine.
Babbage’s Difference Engine was a two-ton, hand-cranked calculator with four thousand separate parts designed to expedite time-consuming mathematical tasks. Lovelace was immediately drawn to the machine and its creator. She would find a way to work with Babbage. She would.
Her first attempt was in the context of education. Lovelace wanted tutoring in math, and in 1839, she asked Babbage to take her on as his student. The two corresponded, but Babbage didn’t bite. He was too busy with his own projects. He was, after all, dreaming up machines capable of streamlining industry, automating manual processes, and freeing up workers tied to mindless tasks.
Lovelace’s mother may have tried to purge her of her father’s influence, but as she reached adulthood, her Byron side started to emerge. Lovelace experienced stretches of depression and then fits of elation. She would fly between frenzied hours of harp practice to the concentrated study of biquadratic equations. Over time, she shook off the behavioural constraints imposed by her mother, and gave herself over to whatever pleased her. All the while, she produced a steady stream of letters. A playfulness emerged. To Babbage, she signed her letters, “Your Fairy”.
Meanwhile, Babbage began spreading the word of his Analytical Engine, another project of his—a programmable beast of a machine, rigged with thousands of stacked and rotating cogwheels. It was just theoretical, but the plans for it were to far exceed the capabilities of any existing calculators, including Babbage’s own Difference Engine. In a series of lectures delivered to an audience of prominent philosophers and scientists in Turin, Italy, Babbage unveiled his visionary idea. He convinced an Italian engineer in attendance to document the talks. In 1842, the resulting article came out in a Swiss journal, published in French.
A decade since their first meeting, Lovelace remained a believer in Babbage’s ideas. With this Swiss publication, she saw her opening to offer support. Babbage’s Analytical Engine deserved a massive audience, and Lovelace knew she could get it in front of more eyeballs by translating the article into English.
Lovelace’s next step was her most significant. She took the base text from the article — some eight thousand words — and annotated it, gracefully comparing the Analytical Engine to its antecedents and explaining its place in the future. If other machines could calculate, reflecting the intelligence of their owners, the Analytical Engine would amplify its owner’s knowledge, able to store data and programs that could process it. Lovelace pointed out that getting the most out of the Analytical Engine meant designing instructions tailored to the owner’s interests. Programming the thing would go a long way. She also saw the possibility for it to process more than numbers, suggesting “the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”
Reining in easily excitable imaginations, Lovelace also explained the Engine’s limitations (“It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths”) and illustrated its strengths (“the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves”).
The most extraordinary of her annotations was Lovelace’s so-called Note G. In it, she explained how a punch-card-based algorithm could return a scrolling sequence of special rational numbers, called Bernoulli numbers. Lovelace’s explanation of how to tell the machine to return Bernoulli numbers is considered the world’s first computer program. What began as a simple translation, as one Babbage scholar points out, became “the most important paper in the history of digital computing before modern times.”
Babbage corresponded with Lovelace throughout the annotation process. Lovelace sent Babbage her commentary for feedback, and where she needed help and clarification, he offered it. Scholars differ on the degree of influence they believe Babbage had on Lovelace’s notes. Some believe that his mind was behind her words. Others, like journalist Suw Charman-Anderson, call her “[not] the first woman [computer programmer]. The first person.”
Lovelace guarded her work, and sometimes fiercely. To one of Babbage’s edits, she replied firmly, “I am much annoyed at your having altered my Note… I cannot endure another person to meddle with my sentences.” She also possessed a strong confidence in the range of her own abilities. In one letter, she confided, “That brain of mine is something more than merely mortal… Before ten years are out, the Devil’s in it if I haven’t sucked out some of the lifeblood from the mysteries of the universe, in a way that no purely mortal lips or brains could do.”
For what it’s worth, Babbage himself was effusive about her contributions. “All this was impossible for you to know by intuition and the more I read your notes the more surprised I am at them and regret not having earlier explored so rich a vein of the noblest metal.”
Lovelace’s ideas about computing were so far ahead of their time that it took nearly a century for technology to catch up. While Lovelace’s notes on Babbage’s analytical engine gained little attention at the time they were originally published in 1843, they found a much wider audience when republished in B.V. Bowden’s 1953 book Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines. As the field of computer science dawned in the 1950s, Lovelace gained a new following in the digital age.
During the 1970s the US Department of Defense developed a high-order computer programming language to supersede the hundreds of different ones then in use by the military. When US Navy Commander Jack Cooper suggested naming the new language “Ada” in honour of Lovelace in 1979, the proposal was unanimously approved. Ada is still used around the world today in the operation of real-time systems in the aviation, health care, transportation, financial, infrastructure and space industries.
Ada Lovelace Day (second Tuesday of October) celebrates the extraordinary achievements of women in science, technology, engineering, and math. The “Ada Lovelace Edit-a-thon” is an annual event aimed at beefing up online entries for women in science whose accomplishments are unsung or misattributed. When her name is mentioned today, it’s more than a tip of the hat; it’s a call to arms.
Story from Headstrong – 52 women who changed science and the world, by Rachel Swaby.