Sunday, March 8, 2020

Ada Lovelace, countess and calculating woman.

I am apparently five years behind the rest of the world in learning about the world's first computer programmer. The bicentennial of the birth of the Honourable Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, was celebrated in 2015 -- but I'd never heard much about her until tonight, when I attended a performance of Ada and the Engine by Lauren Gunderson. 

On the off-chance you'd never heard of her either, I thought Lovelace would make a good subject for a post on this International Women's Day.

By Emgravey - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Ada was the daughter of Lord Byron, Romantic poet and notorious rake. Her parents split when Ada was five weeks old, and her mother raised her, insisting that she be educated in serious subjects like mathematics, in an effort to keep her from developing any of her father's defects of character.

In 1833, seventeen-year-old Ada was introduced by one of her tutors to Charles Babbage. At the time, Babbage was developing a difference engine -- a machine designed to take the drudgery out of some mathematical calculations. Here, Gunderson's play takes some liberties; the playwright suggests the story of Ada and Babbage is one of unrequited love as well as mutual admiration. A lot of their correspondence survives, and apparently there's nothing in any of the letters they exchanged that indicates they were anything more than friends with a mutual love of higher math.

Babbage's difference engine was never built; the British government pulled its funding when the project never progressed to more than a model. Babbage was bitter about the decision, but eventually he came up with an idea for an even grander machine: an analytical engine, to be programmed by punch cards, the same way rug weavers programmed their looms. He delivered a paper on this marvelous device in Turin in 1840, and it was published -- in Frence. By then, Ada had married William King, the first Earl of Lovelace, and borne him three children. She offered to translate the paper from French into English, and add some explanatory notes of her own. Her notes ran three times as long as his paper, and contained what is considered to be the first computer program. 

The whole thing was set to be published -- but then Babbage insisted on including an introduction he had written anonymously. The introduction criticized the British government for pulling the funding on his difference engine. Ada refused, realizing the public would blame her for it -- and she won. The work was published without the introduction.

At that point, Ada offered to oversee the construction of their grand project. Her proposal would have put her in charge, with Babbage as chief technical officer. At first he turned her down flat. But then he came around.

Sadly, the analytical engine was never built, either. Ada developed cancer (Wikipedia says it was uterine cancer, a 2015 article in Wired says it was cervical cancer) and died in 1852 at the age of 36 -- the same age at which her father died. She'd had a troubled relationship with her mother and requested that she be buried alongside her father in Nottingham, England. And she made Babbage the executor of her will.

While Babbage and Ada were never lovers, requited or un-, their relationship was a boon to the development of computers. Happy International Women's Day, Ada, and thanks for your vision.

These moments of zero-and-one blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

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