Julian Sanchez header image 2

photos by Lara Shipley

Much Ada About Nothing

October 16th, 2012 · 16 Comments

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.

Tags: Tech and Tech Policy



16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Luis // Oct 16, 2012 at 9:23 pm

    I think the concern, while not wrong, is a little misplaced, Julian. Hopper, for example, is the subject of the biggest conference on women in computing (gracehopper.org) – there is no shortage of attention to her very real accomplishments. And perhaps the biggest grass-roots activity around Lovelace Day is publishing blog posts around real, modern women who have inspired you- this post is a good example. So, sure, it’s a little sad that the Ada story is more myth than reality. But the actual negative impact of that is pretty low – it certainly hasn’t hindered the celebration of the real achievers, and if it provides a useful founding myth, then the benefits probably outweigh the (so far mostly theoretical) downsides.

  • 2 sarah // Oct 16, 2012 at 9:51 pm

    I can’t speak to Ada’s inflated self-assessment and am unfamiliar with the personal materials Stein surfaced in her work. I take the point that individuals like Grace Hopper have more to show in a sense, would perhaps service the cause more powerfully. It’s a cause that’s important to me because i work in the tech industry as a lady.

    Computer Science is the study of computation theory and what Lovelace nailed, perhaps accidentally (isn’t that endemic to discovery?), was the inception of computation theory.

    >>”If there was anything 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. ”

    It’s more significant than that:
    “She speculated that the Engine ‘might act upon other things besides number… the Engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent’. The idea of a machine that could manipulate symbols in accordance with rules and that number could represent entities other than quantity mark the fundamental transition from calculation to computation.”

    Without computation theory, there was no computer science. While Grace Hopper and others have longer and more complex resumes, they were standing on the shoulders of everything before them in the lineage of computers and cs straight back to Ada (and Babbage), in a time when science itself was unpopular, and a time when the environmental conditions working against a female’s pursuit of the logical-intellectual were far more fierce than those I found discouraging in my math and science classes in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Ada Lovelace is not my mascot, may not be that provocative as a hero, but I’m unconvinced she’s unfit as a mascot of a movement to encourage and celebrate the contributions of women to cs and tech.

  • 3 Mike // Oct 16, 2012 at 10:23 pm

    I will be entirely honest – I have a degree in computer science. And I could definitely name Ada Lovelace, tell you what she is famous for, and that the credit bestowed on her for them is a bit much. But I didn’t actually learn anything about Grace Hopper until reading one of these “Ada Lovelace is overrated” articles. So from my personal experience I think Julian’s argument about their relative fame is entirely justified.

    I’m all for celebrating Grace Hopper day next year. She was awesome.

  • 4 Adrian Ratnapala // Oct 17, 2012 at 1:53 am

    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.”

    Well that’s not fair, the whole point of computers is their abstract aspect – software without hardware is still software (although it probably has bugs). Prancing around like an idiot in a skin-tight suit, is not (necessarily) space exploration.

  • 5 Tybalt // Oct 17, 2012 at 8:21 am

    “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.)”

    I think that’s a little unfair and possibly a bit ahistorical. There was plenty of serious scientific research into both subjects during the first half of the 19th century (and for mesmerism into the 20th century, going on much longer than Lovelace did).

  • 6 Wednesday Highlights | Pseudo-Polymath // Oct 17, 2012 at 8:55 am

    […] wonder why Ms Lovelace has captured the imagination in a way Ms Noether hasn’t. The latter was a far more prominent and […]

  • 7 Stones Cry Out - If they keep silent… » Things Heard: e242v3 // Oct 17, 2012 at 8:56 am

    […] wonder why Ms Lovelace has captured the imagination in a way Ms Noether hasn’t. The latter was a far more prominent and […]

  • 8 Julian // Oct 17, 2012 at 9:00 am

    Right, but like Shatner, she didn’t really write the lines either.

  • 9 K. Chen // Oct 17, 2012 at 3:13 pm

    All celebrations like this are more about the myth than the history. What makes Lovelace stand out in this regard?

  • 10 Lindsay Lennox // Oct 17, 2012 at 4:01 pm

    I feel icky even pointing this out, but as a marketing/PR professional I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that the two women in question do not have, well, equal physical gifts. Not that this makes a lick of difference to their respective contributions to programming, but if the goal of celebrating this event is to interest young women in programming, it’s not surprising that whoever organized it selected Ada Lovelace (her name is every pretty and romantic, not to mention her lineage) as the poster child based on somewhat scant original work.

    More about “pinkification” of science: http://skepchick.org/2012/06/why-pinkifying-science-does-more-harm-than-good/

  • 11 DivisionByZero // Oct 18, 2012 at 7:39 am

    James Gleick seems to have swallowed this myth hook, line, and sinker in his book, Information.

  • 12 Julian Sanchez // Oct 18, 2012 at 8:07 am

    Yup. And even more generally, I’m sure one reason Lovelace makes such an appealing genius is that her whole life, even leaving aside her collaboration with Babbage, can seem like it was made to be a movie.

  • 13 synapseandsyntax // Oct 21, 2012 at 7:11 pm

    I generally agree that there is nothing to be had by inflating Lovelace’s contributions beyond their actual measure, especially when there remain many much more significant women scientists whose names are generally unknown to the public. Just off the top of my head, Emmy Noether, Esther Lederberg and Maud Menten all contributed serious, fundamental results to their fields but remain obscure outside of them.

  • 14 Bo // Oct 22, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    No wonder Ada Lovelace struggled with “Show that f(x+y) + f(x-y) = 2f(x)f(y) is satisfied by f(x)=(a^x + a^(-x))”… It’s not true!

    Unless Maxima is lying to me, it’s equal to f(x) * f(y) .

  • 15 Julian Sanchez // Oct 22, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    There’s an “/2″ in there, so perhaps that’s the issue, but I haven’t tried to work through it myself to check. Stein goes on to discuss why Lovelace had trouble with it, so I’m just sort of taking for granted that it is a valid solution…

  • 16 Bo // Oct 22, 2012 at 6:58 pm

    OK, somehow I missed that when I copied it down. It’s correct in that case!

Leave a Comment