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.