I love the idea behind Ada Lovelace Day: Celebrating the neglected contributions of women in science and technology in order to encourage young women to pursue careers in stereotypically male fields where, all too often, a “boys club” environment continues to reign. But I really wish this effort could pick a better mascot than Ada Lovelace, a figure of no real importance to the history of science or computing, whose fame rests largely on a single paper that regurgitated and popularized the ideas of a man.
Lovelace is frequently hailed as the “first computer programmer,” which is true in approximately the same sense that William Shatner is the “first starship captain.” The “program” Lovelace published was an algorithm actually written by Charles Babbage, which could have computed a sequence of Bernoulli numbers on Babbage’s never-constructed Analytic Engine. The original ideas in the paper are Babbage’s, and the paper—a translation from French of an Italian mathematician’s lecture on the Engine, followed by a much lengthier series of explanatory notes—was written with his close collaboration. Here’s how Babbage described the process:
I then suggested that she add some notes to Menabrea’s memoir, an idea which was immediately adopted. We discussed together the various illustrations that might be introduced: I suggested several but the selection was entirely her own. So also was the algebraic working out of the different problems, except, indeed, that relating to the numbers of Bernoulli, which I had offered to do to save Lady Lovelace the trouble. This she sent back to me for an amendment, having detected a grave mistake which I had made in the process.
Babbage was being charitable here: As their correspondence at the time shows, it was Lovelace who asked Babbage to send her the “necessary data & formulae” to construct an example involving Bernoulli numbers, with no hint that she merely wished to be saved the bother of a task she could have done for herself. Another letter suggests that Lovelace encountered substantial difficulty in translating Babbage’s “formulae” into the diagram format Babbage had used for his earlier programs—so possibly Babbage’s “save her the trouble” remark refers to some further assistance he rendered in constructing the table; it’s difficult to tell from the exchanges reproduced in the biographies I’ve read.
Obviously Lovelace was no slouch if she spotted an error in Babbage’s algorithm, and by all accounts grasped the significance of his visionary project when many contemporaries regarded it as crankish. (Then again, she’d subsequently develop similar enthusiasms for mesmerism and phrenology.) But as one biographer puts it, the algorithms contained in Lovelace’s celebrated paper are essentially “student exercises rather than original work.” That’s not to say they’re unsophisticated, but they represent competent execution, not innovation: Her illustrative “programs,” excepting the freshly developed Bernoulli, had all been worked out years earlier by Babbage and his assistants, from whom Lovelace had learned—Lovelace was just the first to put one of these “illustrations” into print. In the eight years between her collaboration with Babbage and her premature death, Lovelace produced no further significant work.
Dorothy Stein was the first of Lovelace’s biographers with sufficient training to seriously assess Ada’s frequent proclamations of her own extraordinary mathematical genius. She concludes that Lovelace was not quite the prodigy she imagined herself to be, often struggling to master relatively elementary concepts and principles. A November 1842 letter to her tutor, the renowned mathematician Augustus De Morgan, finds her stuck on a problem of the sort you probably recall working through in high school:
Show that f(x+y) + f(x-y) = 2f(x)f(y) is satisfied by f(x)=(ax + a-x)/2
Lovelace confessed she was “ashamed to say how much time I have spent upon it, in vain. These Functional Equations are complete Will-o-the-Wisps to me.” This is a letter written at age 28, a year before her paper on the Analytic Engine. She continued her education, of course, but it is very hard to believe these are the words of someone a year away from doing major original work in mathematics. Stein concludes that the “evidence of the tenuousness with which she grasped the subject of mathematics would be difficult to credit about one who succeeded in gaining a contemporary and posthumous reputation as a mathematical talent, if there were not so much of it.”
Modern historians without Stein’s background in computer science seem to have swallowed a little too credulously Lovelace’s inflated self-assessment, doubtless bolstered by the praise of contemporaries eager to indulge a countess and flatter her mother and husband. (Babbage, for his part, never stopped angling for more government funding for his Analytic Engine, and had reasons beyond her mathematical abilities to welcome the interest and advocacy of Lord Byron’s famous daughter.) Again, even with extensive guidance, her “Notes” are obviously the work of a highly intelligent person—but breathless descriptions of Lovelace as one of the great mathematical minds of her era are utterly detached from reality.
If there was something original to Lovelace in that paper, it may be the prescient suggestion that future versions of the engine, which Babbage seemed to imagine purely as a mathematical tool, might be programmed to generate music or graphic art. But if we’re counting feats of imagination, we can find something similar a century earlier in Gulliver’s Travels. This does arguably represent an important conceptual leap, from calculation to true “computation,” in the sense of abstract symbol manipulation, but it still ultimately a speculative aside—science fiction rather than science.
While Babbage and Lovelace may have glimpsed the future of information technology, their influence on its actual emergence was pretty much nil. The principles of computing were independently developed in the early 20th century, and only later was the work of Babbage and Lovelace rediscovered and retroactively integrated into the history of computing. If you want to know what the Information Age would look like if Ada Lovelace had never written a word, look out the window.
I’d guess the myth around Lovelace persists because a woman mathematical genius overcoming the strictures and prejudices of 19th century England to herald the age of computing makes for such a compelling story. It would be so awesome if it were true that nobody really wants to pop the bubble. The flip side, though, is that Ada has become an icon while real women pioneers of computing like Grace Hopper remain far less well known. It seems more just and more honest to honor those genuine achievements than to insist on holding up a popularizer with an outsized ego as some kind of major figure. Maybe next year we can celebrate Grace Hopper day instead?
Update: The tone of this strikes me as a little harsh on second reading, so I should emphasize that Lovelace was clearly, in many ways, a remarkable woman of admirably broad intellectual curiosity. She had the insight to apprehend both the significance and the workings of Babbage’s Engines at a level few of his other contemporaries did, and the skill to explain them to the public more masterfully than Babbage himself ever managed to. It just seems silly to pretend she was something more than a gifted explicator on the grounds that it makes for a more inspiring story.