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Lovelace at 200: Celebrating the High Priestess to Babbage's machines

The ordinary heroine turned cultural and computing icon

A few of computing’s most vivid characters have become cultural icons. Most are from the last few decades, such as Steve Jobs and Alan Turing, but last month the University of Oxford held an academic symposium to mark the 200th birthday of one of the first: Ada, Countess of Lovelace, born on 10 December, 1815.

Her collaboration with Charles Babbage on mechanical computers included her writing what is arguably the world’s first computer program.

As well as being a woman pioneer of what is still a male-dominated profession, Lovelace was an engaging writer, a gambler who lost money at the races, and an aristocrat by marriage and birth – she was the daughter of Lord Byron, although her mother left the notorious poet (accompanied by Ada as a one-month-old baby.)

Lovelace died at just 36 with Babbage’s computers unbuilt, leaving plenty of room to imagine what more they might have done. Since then, books, plays and films have imagined just that.

Lovelace may not have been too surprised by her cultural impact, as she was perhaps the first person to imagine how computing and culture would be linked. “Through translating her poetical inheritance into the mathematical and scientific sphere, Lovelace was able to bring a startling and unique perspective to bear on Babbage’s engines,” Imogen Forbes-Macphail, a graduate student of English at University of California, Berkeley told the symposium.

Lovelace thought the engines could produce works of art such as music and emulate the human nervous system, as well as just manipulate numbers.

Babbage and Lovelace were rediscovered by 20th century computing pioneers including Turing, who included ‘Lady Lovelace’s objection’ in his 1950 paper on artificial intelligence that included his eponymous test. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that Ada Lovelace emerged as a cultural figure.

Elizabeth Bruton of Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science told the event that this started with academic papers, then a 1977 biography and the naming of the Ada programming language.

In 1990, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling made her a character in pioneering steampunk novel The Difference Engine. Set in an alternative Victorian London, the novel has Babbage and Lovelace’s steam-driven computers connected by telegraph, bringing the internet and surveillance state into early existence. In his 2005 novel The Evening Land, John Crowley imagined Lovelace rescuing and publishing Byron’s lost novel. “Each age has its own Ada Lovelace,” Bruton concluded.

Our age’s Ada Lovelace wisecracks with Babbage while smoking a pipe, if the rock-star reception given to Sydney Padua was anything to go by. Her graphic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage recently won the British Society for the History of Mathematics’ Neumann Prize.

Padua told the symposium that she drew the initial online cartoon only after being talked into it in a wine-bar by Suw Charman-Anderson, the founder of Ada Lovelace Day. This ended with Babbage and Lovelace turning into super-villains: “I hate computers, and they invented this terrible thing,” Padua said.

The Thrilling Adventures imagines Lovelace and Babbage building a giant mechanical computer then dreaming up various uses to justify its government grant. Lovelace amuses Queen Victoria by getting the computer to print cute cat pictures; engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel lends a hand when the machine goes rogue when trying to model the economy; and writer Marian Evans – better known by her pen name George Eliot – gets lost in the machine when it swallows her manuscript to spellcheck it.

Padua sets the book in a pocket universe, letting her improve on history in a variety of ways: she imagines Jane Austen as well as Lovelace living to a ripe old age. But as the voluminous notes show, The Thrilling Adventures is based on detailed research including through Google Books, where vast amounts of 19th century literature and journals are freely available.

A lot of the dialogue is based on letters and other writing by Lovelace and Babbage. A scene in which Lovelace swears over a speaker-tube at Babbage, unaware that Queen Victoria is present, was based on her swearing in letters and an 1837 description of her as “the most coarse and vulgar woman in England” – Lovelace, not Her Majesty.

Padua told the symposium that it was hard to work out Lovelace’s character, given the effort she put into keeping up the part of a Victorian female aristocrat. “She’s very difficult to know, if not impossible to know, as a human being,” Padua argued.

However, Padua reckoned that she speaks most freely in her letters to Babbage. In one, Lovelace describes herself as the “high priestess” of Babbage’s machine, and Padua was inspired by the Tarot card of that name in drawing her.

Padua added that she also gained insight from being a women working in technology as an animator, her main occupation. “I’m very used to being underestimated, but I’m also very used to feeling like a fraud. Drawing this comic became this very strange, fraught space for me,” she added, also stating she felt a responsibility: “Here I was, with this task from the universe.”

The fact that women are still outnumbered in technology is one reason Ada Lovelace remains an icon, according to Valerie Barr, professor of computer science at Union College. “The grim statistic: one per cent of women’s college degrees in the US are earned in computer science, and five per cent of men’s are,” she told the symposium.

Barr said that Lovelace wasn’t a magical super-heroine, and that is part of the reason she continues to inspire. “Her parents had some real problems,” she said to laughter. “She did not have educational access equal to that of the men of her time of comparable intellect.”

Her early life was micro-managed: “There’s a lot of young women in the world today who can totally relate to that," said Barr, but none of this stopped Lovelace developing her ideas. “That is something worth emulating.”

Oxford University’s Ada Lovelace symposium is available on video here and in podcasts here. ®

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