Ada Lovelace Day: all that and in a corset too

Ada Lovelace in an 1836 painting.
Ada Lovelace in an 1836 painting

Tuesday 11 October is Ada Lovelace Day. A day that celebrates the achievements of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). See the website findingada.com.

Named after the woman who is often referred to as the first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace was the daughter of the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ Lord Byron and, perhaps more famously, was the collaborator of the inventor and mathematician, Charles Babbage.

At a time when most women were expected to confine their interests to quiet, homely and introspective pursuits, Ada embraced the scientific ideas of the day with a fury and set about making her mark in the world of mathematics. Ada’s mother, herself educated in mathematics, encouraged her.

Jacquard cards
Jacquard cards
A punch for Jacquard cards
A punch for Jacquard cards

Ada’s meeting with Charles Babbage was the start of a long friendship. Babbage was developing his Difference Engines, basically calculating machines, and later his Analytical Engines, more sophisticated devices that could store and process numbers. Joseph-Marie Jacquard developed the punched card system to mechanize the textile industry at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Babbage used the same idea to ‘program’ his engines.

In a rather poetic statement, Ada said of Babbage’s early computing machines, ‘we may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard Loom weaves flowers and leaves’. As Sadie Plant points out in her book Zeros and Ones, in 1815 Lord Byron gave a speech in parliament against these very weaving machines as he supported the Luddites who feared for their jobs.

Babbage’s machines are generally considered forerunners of modern computing technology and it was widely considered that Ada’s work producing step-by-step instructions on to how these devices could solve mathematical problems that led to the claim that she was the first computer programmer.

Ada Lovelace was a woman of many talents and wide interests. One of her later projects, also developed with Charles Babbage, was to use probability theories to predict winners on the racecourse. It turned out to be a disaster, resulting in debt and scandal. But perhaps this outcome was not a complete surprise given her parentage and, in some ways, serves to make her more interesting, a compelling mix of passion and reason, of creativity and science.

So whatever you are doing on Ada Lovelace Day, give a thought to the woman whose enthusiasm for her subject and zest for life is an example to us all.

For more information on Ada, see Betty Toole’s book, Ada: The Enchantress of Numbers. This book also contains many of Ada’s own letters.

There is also a film by Lynn Hershman Leeson called Conceiving Ada about a modern computer scientist who communicates with Ada.

For more information on the role of women in technology, Sadie Plant’s book, Zeros and Ones is an interesting read. Also a more general information book on technology and its history is Charlie Gere’s Digital Culture.

An interesting website about Charles Babbage and his work is www.computerhistory.org/babbage.

Anne Carson

Poetry Society Annual Lecture ‘Stammering, stops, silence: on the method and uses of untranslation’


Silence and how to capture it, in visual art as well as in words, is becoming something of a preoccupation of mine. So I was really looking forward to Anne Carson’s lecture last Friday evening at the British Museum.

Anne Carson is a poet, classicist, translator and writer, but she also has a wonderful way of connecting ideas. These ideas were coming thick and fast in her lecture as she referenced Bacon and Rembrandt, Homer, Joan of Arc and the poetry of Hölderlin.

British Museum
British Museum

Throughout the talk, images played on a screen behind her, not to illustrate the lecture but almost to reflect on the words that have gone and were to come. Reeling from so many thoughts and reflections, I wanted to repeat the experience. Help is at hand as the Poetry Society will be reproducing the lecture in their December issue of Poetry Review (www.poetrysociety.org.uk).

Mass Observation

Mass Observation exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery


The Photograrphers' Gallery
The Photographers’ Gallery

Just managed to catch this intriguing exhibition before it closed on 29 September. Visual images and written accounts collected as part of the Mass Observation projects chartered different aspects of daily life in Britain from the 1930s onwards.

The photographs are stunning, not just in the detail portrayed of people at work and play, but as pieces of art in their own right. The picture of the street barber with his mad ‘Sideshow Bob’ hair is not easily forgotten. The study of the circus, the industrial mill town and the rural community were just a few of the projects on display.

What I found amazing, though, was the way that some of the investigations were carried out. People were spied upon and their every action recorded. This ranged from the method that a woman applied to scrubbing her front steps through to voyeuristic accounts of the activities of courting couples on the beach. No detail seemed to be too insignificant or intrusive. I suppose now we have technology to record our every move, correspondence and transaction, but this serves as reminder that nothing is truly private.

More information about the Mass Observation archive can be found on its website.

Suffragette play

To Freedom’s Cause


To Freedom's Cause

Kate Willoughby‘s play To Freedom’s Cause came to the Tristan Bates Theatre in London’s Covent Garden at the end of June. It was an intense and thought-provoking performance.

The play arrived in London on its last stop on a tour to mark the 100th anniversary of the death of the suffragette, Emily Wilding Davison. Emily is the character at the heart of the drama and the play considers not only her commitment to the ‘Votes for Women’ cause but also what that meant for those who were caught up in her struggle.

Many of the elements of the play are raw in their brutal telling of the experiences that Emily had to endure at the hands of the state. The terror of force-feeding and the treatment meted out when Emily barricaded herself into her prison cell are not easily forgotten. But while these scenes are horrific to watch, I feel that they are important reminders of what these women went through.

Kate Willoughby, as both playwright and actor in the role of Emily, portrays Emily as a clever but complex character, neither saint nor sinner, just human. We glimpse the playful and tender woman behind the determined and often difficult persona of the militant suffragette.

In an interesting twist, the play suggests that the 1913 Derby protest was initiated by the suffragettes of the North-East and it was they who persuaded the now exhausted Emily to join in. Soon after, Emily receives a telegram informing her that she has drawn the short straw and will be the one to implement the direct action. At this point, you can’t help wondering whether the selection was purely by chance. Resigned to her fate, Emily leaves her long-suffering mother and goes to do her duty.

In a rather beautiful mirroring of the tragic incident, the inclusion in the play of the figure of the King’s jockey, Herbert Jones, mostly in his later life, is a poignant reminder of how every action an individual takes can affect the life of others. This aspect was of particular interest to me. I was pleased to see ‘Bertie’ have a place in the story and was very moved by the performance, which I felt captured the sorrow of this gentle sportsman.

The stage production was clever and imaginative, but unobtrusive; I was amazed at how well the different locations were accommodated. The haunting Northumbrian folk music added atmosphere, suggesting an almost timeless inevitability of what it can mean to fight for your cause.

All in all, I found To Freedom’s Cause to be a very accomplished and compelling piece of theatre. The play tells of a key moment in our social history. That this play does so in a naturalistic yet poignant manner suggests to me that such a dramatization has further value as an educational tool, although not just for history scholars or students of citizenship, but for us all.

Remembering Emily

Commemorating Emily Wilding Davison


100 years after the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) procession that accompanied Emily Wilding Davison’s body across London from Victoria to King’s Cross Station, Bloomsbury again was filled with the sound of women’s voices. As part of their multi-arts-filled programme, the Wilding Festival held a procession from Russell Square to St George’s Church in memory of that solemn but magnificent occasion. Just as then, the white, green and purple of the suffragette colours were visible in the sashes, banners, ribbons and flowers of those who marched. A touching sight and a reminder that even, and possibly particularly, today, we should not forget the fight for women’s rights.

For more on the Wilding Festival, see thewildingfestival.co.uk.

The Wilding Festival, June 2013
The Wilding Festival, June 2013
The Wilding Festival, June 2013
The Wilding Festival, June 2013
The Wilding Festival, June 2013
The Wilding Festival, June 2013
The Wilding Festival, June 2013
The Wilding Festival, June 2013
The Wilding Festival, June 2013
The Wilding Festival, June 2013
The Wilding Festival, June 2013
The Wilding Festival, June 2013
The Wilding Festival, June 2013
The Wilding Festival, June 2013
The Wilding Festival, June 2013
The Wilding Festival, June 2013
The Wilding Festival, June 2013
The Wilding Festival, June 2013
The Wilding Festival, June 2013
The Wilding Festival, June 2013
The Wilding Festival, June 2013
The Wilding Festival, June 2013
The Wilding Festival, June 2013
The Wilding Festival, June 2013
The Wilding Festival, June 2013
The Wilding Festival, June 2013
The Wilding Festival, June 2013
The Wilding Festival, June 2013
The Wilding Festival, June 2013
The Wilding Festival, June 2013

Copycat protest

Derby copycat protest at the Gold Cup. Ascot, 19 June 1913: 100 years ago today


newspaper-article
How the event was reported at the time.

Two weeks after the Suffragette Derby and it is the next great racing event of the Season, Royal Ascot. On a perfect summer’s day, crowds gather to watch the highlight of the day, the race for the Gold Cup.

As the horses approach the long curve before straightening up to pass the stands, the American horse Tracery has a clear lead and is still accelerating.

At this point, a man emerges from a ditch behind the furze bushes on the outside of the course. Smartly dressed in a grey suit, he pauses to hang up his satchel on the fence. Cool and collected, he walks across the course, people think he must be an official. But then he opens his arms, holding out a revolver in one hand and a suffragette flag in the other. He stops by the inside rail, right in the path of Tracery and the pack of horses that are coming along close behind.

Tracery’s head strikes the man full in the chest and he falls. Horse and jockey fall together. Somehow most of the other horses swerve and jump, avoiding the pile before them, although one clips the man’s head with his hoof. Tracery rights himself. The jockey, Albert ‘Snowy’ Whalley, staggers to his feet and heads for the paddock, where he is treated for concussion. The man lies unconscious and bleeding.

The man was Harold Hewitt, a wealthy and educated 40-year-old, believed to be suffering from ‘religious mania’. Hewitt had a fractured skull and underwent surgery to move a piece of bone that was pressing on his brain. He recovered and was moved to an asylum, from which he escaped to Canada. In a strange postscript to this story, 8 years later he returned to England to face the charges of causing bodily harm to the jockey. I’ve yet to find out what happened next, but will let you know when I do.

The Gold Cup protest features in my novel, The King’s Jockey, for Bertie Jones was there. In fact, the previous day he had ridden Anmer, the same horse that he was riding in the Suffragette Derby. It must have been hard for Bertie with this event occurring so soon after Emily Wilding Davison’s death and also as he knew Snowy Whalley well, attending his wedding a few months later. Snowy Whalley was deeply affected by the incident and it was said to have been a factor in his early retirement as a jockey.