Ada Lovelace: Seven odd facts about the first programmer
Software

Ada Lovelace: Seven odd facts about the first programmer

My favourite Financial Times journalists are Lucy Kellaway and Gillian Tett. And I can’t help wondering if it is coincidental that both are women…

Maybe, but maybe not. Neither of their approaches are some mad-pejorative-dresses-and-perfume idea of femininity. Yet Gillian Tett does tend to focus on big picture societal impact. While Lucy Kellaway places a lot of emphasis on individual corporate experiences and even wrote the comic novel, Martin Lukes: Who Moved My BlackBerry?  

So what has all this got to do with women in tech or Ada Lovelace Day? Well, there is clearly a lot of stuff and nonsense written about both subjects. The worst end of this appears to champion drafting in as many women in as possible for no apparent reason.

There is one reason why having more women in different environments is a good thing: different people come with different perspectives. In fact, probably the least interesting thing about Ada Lovelace is the much touted label that she was ‘the first programmer’…

 

Daughter of the notorious poet Lord Byron

Lord Byron was a pop star of his age. He was a member of the aristocracy – which was as celebrity as it got back then – he was handsome, and he wrote poetry. He also had a debauched life complete with lovers, debts and even incest. When he married the highly educated Anne Isabella Noel – for her cash – the union wasn’t happy. The mother left and their only child, Ada, never met her father.

However, the paternal legacy was everywhere in her life. As her mother didn’t want her to suffer from the “insanity” of her father she was encouraged into maths. All this made her quite notorious in her own right from the word go. 

Ragingly ‘hatstand’ and a chirpy approach to communication

Ada Lovelace had the type of personality that sets people in good stead for success. She was bright, unconventional, fiercely independent and extremely likeable. Although she studied science, she embodied what people think of the ‘spirit of the arts’, making her a brilliant blend of two disciplines.

Spammed Charles Babbage and other innovative scientists via Mary Somerville

Friends in high places make new connections easier. And via a friendship with Mary Somerville – the science polymath who gave her name to Somerville College, Oxford – Lovelace was able to get to know famous inventor Charles Babbage. Later she also attempted to get in with Michael Faraday – a pioneer in the field of electricity – but unfortunately he rejected her services.

Excellent on detail with an eye on the big picture

The reason Ada Lovelace became known as the first programmer was through her work with Charles Babbage. In this she produced notes on his – sadly never built – Analytical Engine. This included a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers with the Engine and is how she received the moniker the “first computer programmer”.

Although the one part of this that is most debated is her dismissal of Artificial Intelligence – AI seemed inconceivable based on the technology of the time – what seems striking to me, is the big picture thinking. Rather than focusing on the science and technology alone, Lovelace was interested in what these developments would mean in practice.

A new semi-modern breed of feminism

The 19th century was a prime time for a lot of nonsense written about women. Yet Ada Lovelace managed to live her life ‘like a man’ of the time. She was career focused – meaning absorbed in things outside the home – and she wasn’t much interested in her children. As her biographer, Suw Charman-Anderson, put it: “Her marriage to [William the 8th Baron] King was, in some ways, a mirror image of her parents’ marriage, but with their roles reversed.”

Plenty of cash is the ultimate freedom  

It is impossible to ignore the fact that the majority of people who made great strides in any field back in the 19th century – and often today – tended to have a fair bit of cash to start with. This means they were not constrained by the tedious need to earn a living (or raise their own children). Most women of the period who concentrated on external matters tended to put their energy into charitable works of one sort or another. But the unique set of circumstances that framed Lovelace’s life meant that she was focused on science.

A ‘feminine’ approach to science

Like Gillian Tett and Lucy Kellaway there is nothing obviously ‘feminine’ about Ada Lovelace’s approach to her work. But this is largely because when the term feminine when applied to anything empirical it tends to be pejorative. Yet what Ada Lovelace brought was a different – perhaps more feminine – perspective. This included an emphasis on the social impact of tech, a different style of communication and really, just a unique point of view.  

 

This piece was originally published on October 13 2015

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