Reflecting on the Brilliance of Ada Lovelace – Feminist Frequency

Reflecting on the Brilliance of Ada Lovelace

#Ordinary Women

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Ebony Aster

Operations Director and rogue snuffleupagus

Feminist Frequency was so excited to share the final episode of Ordinary Women: Daring to Defy History, that we’re releasing it ahead of schedule! Please join us as we reflect on the visionary work of Ada Lovelace, a Victorian noblewoman who foresaw the richness, complexity, and potential of the digital age.

This episode is generously sponsored by The Science Ambassador Scholarship, who fund a full  tuition scholarship for a woman seeking an undergraduate degree in science, engineering, or math.

Ordinary Women: Daring to Defy History explored the lives and accomplishments of fascinating women who defied gender stereotypes, but often found themselves pushed to the sidelines or erased from history books that weren’t ready to acknowledge them. This series was made possible by generous donations to our Seed & Spark crowdfunding campaign for the project.

As we reflect back on the incredibly rich lives of the women we profile in this series, we would be remiss not to express our profound gratitude for the support of everyone who helped us bring these stories to life. From all the team at Feminist Frequency, and all of the creative minds who worked to make this labor of love a reality.

Feminist Frequency has big things in store for 2017 — we hope that you will join us!

← Series Archive

Full Transcript →

Feminist Frequency was so excited to share the final episode of Ordinary Women: Daring to Defy History, that we’re releasing it ahead of schedule! Please join us as we reflect on the visionary work of Ada Lovelace, a Victorian noblewoman who foresaw the richness, complexity, and potential of the digital age.

This episode is generously sponsored by The Science Ambassador Scholarship, who fund a full  tuition scholarship for a woman seeking an undergraduate degree in science, engineering, or math.

Ordinary Women: Daring to Defy History explored the lives and accomplishments of fascinating women who defied gender stereotypes, but often found themselves pushed to the sidelines or erased from history books that weren’t ready to acknowledge them. This series was made possible by generous donations to our Seed & Spark crowdfunding campaign for the project.

As we reflect back on the incredibly rich lives of the women we profile in this series, we would be remiss not to express our profound gratitude for the support of everyone who helped us bring these stories to life. From all the team at Feminist Frequency, and all of the creative minds who worked to make this labor of love a reality.

Feminist Frequency has big things in store for 2017 — we hope that you will join us!

← Series Archive

Transcript

If you’ve ever used a computer, smartphone, or a gaming system at any point in your life, then you owe a debt of gratitude to Ada Lovelace. Born in Victorian England during the time of the telegraph and the steam engine, she was the architect of the very first computer program, the predecessor to the programs running inside in the device where you’re watching this video right now.

Her father was the famous and often scandalous poet Lord Byron, a man once described as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” by one of his many lovers. He married a well-to-do young woman named Annabella, but the honeymoon didn’t last long thanks to Byron’s reputation for affairs with both men and women.

Tired of his misbehavior, Lady Byron left him only a month after their daughter was born, stealing away with the baby as he slept. Ada would never see her father again. News of the scandal traveled quickly through London’s high society, making her something of a celebrity, even as aN infant.

It was rare for girls in Victorian England to receive advanced schooling, since most people believed women were intellectually inferior to men and destined only for marriage and children. But Lady Byron was an unusually well-educated woman, whose love of mathematics had once inspired her husband to call her the “princess of parallelograms.” She encouraged her daughter to pursue math and science but frowned on poetry, imagination, or really anything that reminded her of her “wayward husband.”

At the age of 17, Lovelace met the mathematician Charles Babbage for the first time. A brilliant but eccentric man whose passion for math and science matched her own, he was eager to share his plans for an ingenious machine that could compute and print tables of mathematical information. Although he hadn’t actually built the device, he invited Lovelace and her mother to view an early prototype. Ada was immediately intrigued by the inventor, the invention, and the beautiful mathematics contained within its gears. Despite a 25-year age difference, she and Babbage started exchanging letters and quickly struck up a close, lifelong friendship. Although she ultimately married a nobleman, her correspondence with Babbage continued, and grew so intimate that some wonder whether there was a secret romance between them as well.

Soon, Babbage conceived of an idea for a new and more sophisticated calculation device that he called the Analytical Engine. It could make more complex calculations, and also contained two components that he called the “store” and the “mill,” or what later computer scientists would call “the memory” and “the CPU.”

Lovelace saw the incredible potential of the device, and wanted more people to know about it. So in 1843, she translated an academic paper about the Analytical Engine from French to English. In the process, she not only discovered a serious error in Babbage’s calculations and helped him fix it, she also annotated the document with her own insights into the machine.

These notes ended up being three times longer than the original article, and turned what could have been a simple translation into one of the most important documents in computer history. In what would be called “Note G,” Lovelace made a profound conceptual leap whose implications would not be fully understood for almost a hundred years.

In her notes on the engine, Ada created an algorithm to demonstrate exactly how it could be used to compute a complex number sequence. Although neither she nor Babbage realized it at the time, this was something far more important than an academic reflection on the potential of the engine. It was the first computer program. And she’d written it.

While Babbage viewed his invention as little more than an elaborate calculator, Lovelace saw something more: a revolutionary machine that could weave information the way a loom might weave an intricate pattern and create a new science unto itself.

Her descriptions of the device not only foresaw the development of computer graphics and digital music but include surprisingly philosophical mentions of truth and beauty. Despite her mother’s efforts to stifle her sense of poetry, she saw the possibilities of the Analytical Engine in visionary, metaphorical terms and it opened a door into the future.

The paper, along with her copious notes, was published in 1843 and Lovelace signed it with the initials “A.A.L.,” hoping to conceal both her famous name and her gender. In the same year, one of her letters to Babbage mentions feeling “very ill.” She had suffered from poor health throughout her life, which male doctors insisted was the result of scientific work that was just too taxing for the weak feminine intellect. They insisted she was sick because of her “intellectual overexertion.” Needless to say, they were wrong. At the age of 36, she was diagnosed with cancer and died soon afterwards.

Although Lovelace is now widely credited as a pioneer of computer science, her legacy is not uncontroversial. Lovelace spent most of her life being undervalued and condescended to by men, and her work has sadly faced the same issues in the modern era as well. Although there’s some academic debate about whether her algorithm was truly the first “computer program” in the modern sense of the word, other critics have tried to dismiss her accomplishments entirely. They suggest that she simply “did not have the knowledge” to write a program, or that Babbage wrote the notes himself and she just put her name on them. One particularly uncharitable historian went so far as to call her “mad as a hatter” and claim that she contributed little to Babbage’s work “except trouble.”

Babbage, a genius in his own right, had very different words to say about the fellow scientist he knew and respected so well. In a letter to a friend, he called Lovelace an “enchantress who has thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of sciences and grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects could have exerted.” After reading her notes on his work, he was astonished, and wrote back in admiration saying “All this was impossible for you to know by intuition, and the more I read your notes, the more surprised I am at them, and regret not having earlier explored so rich a vein of the noblest metal.”

In the end, Babbage never actually built a complete version of his Analytical Engine, though he is still widely credited as the inventor of the first computer. But in Lovelace we find not just the first programmer but the first person to foresee the digital future. And despite the best efforts of her naysayers, she remains something truly remarkable: a person who looked at a calculator and saw the computer age.

 

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