Ada Lovelace: why do we care?


Ada Lovelace Symposium 9/10 December 2015: photo @lynrobinson cc-by

Last week, I attended the Symposium at the Mathematical Institute in Oxford, held over 9/10th December 2015, in celebration of Ada Lovelace’s (1815-1852) 200th birthday.

As at least an honorary member of the computer science discipline, I have always been quick to cite Ada as an example of ‘a really clever girl’, someone who represents equality for women in what is still, in many universities, a male dominated subject.

I held the impression that Ada was rather more clever than those who influenced her, but apart from the well told, but often disputed, line that she was the world’s first ‘programmer’, I knew little about her, and hence my desire to join an audience of mathematicians, physicists and computer scientists for a couple of days of hardcore Ada.

The sessions certainly brought Ada to life for me, allowing me to move beyond my association of her with the workings of the Analytical Engine, and with her somewhat severe photographs.

As I listened to the presentations around findings from computer science, music and literary analysis, I was reminded of the contribution which library and information science (LIS) makes to progress within other disciplines: from promoting the value of original sources, through the creation of collections and discovery systems, to the question of archiving, in which the selection, preservation, and provision of access to the documents comprising our heritage has important implications for our future.

Several speakers drew on the connection between Ada and imagination, and her understanding of its central role  in the process of discovery within both the arts and sciences. As LIS professionals, we could perhaps draw more attention to ways in which our knowledge and skills can be used to stimulate imagination, and to support creativity, connections and new understanding.

Ursula Martin described materials selected (with Mary Clapinson) from the archives of the Lovelace family papers, in building the current exhibition at the Bodleian. [A digital collection of Ada’s mathematical papers will be available online in 2016]. The papers, having spawned much overlapping analysis of Ada already, promise there is still much to be discovered, and the delight shown by Martin, a computer scientist, in realising the meaning of scribbled diagrams sketched across snippets of paper was infectious. The documents she described revealed Ada’s wide ranging scientific interests and abilities, including her fascination with ‘magic squares’, an example of which was deftly demonstrated in modern time by Soren Riis (really seems like magic!).

The correspondence between Ada and her tutor, August de Morgan, and between her and Charles Babbage, provide us with rich sources of evidence for the development of Ada’s thinking, in support of the claim as to whether or not she was the world’s first programmer. It is worth considering perhaps, the longevity and accessibility of contemporary emails as evidence for future historians. Much development of modern thinking takes place in digital forums and on multiple social media and publishing platforms. This is likely to prove challenging to any attempt to reconstruct accurate trails of the emergence of ideas, which in today’s world often involve multiple players, in contrast to the one-to-one conversations of the analogue past. An important question for library and information science, is not just ‘what to preserve?’ but how to know it even exists.

Author Betty Toole (Ada, The Enchantress of Numbers: Poetical Science), presented evidence for Ada’s human characteristics, and suggested that computer science today would benefit more from a focus on Ada’s humanity, than on the issue of whether or not she wrote the first computer programme. Ada saw beyond the calculations, to envisage how the Analytical Engine could change the world, and how it could be used to benefit all. Toole recalled a letter from fellow author Bruce Sterling, who wrote that he would never have written his acclaimed ‘The Difference Engine’ (co-authored with William Gibson) had he first read Toole’s work, as her interpretation of Ada made him see a human being, in contrast to a stereotype.

Toole read extracts on fashion advice from Ada’s letters to her daughter, Ann Isabella, as evidence for her gentle humour and understanding – letters written even though she was extremely ill (Ada died aged 36). Other examples included extracts from letters to her tutor, de Morgan, explicating her struggle with functional equations, and revealing her unassuming nature in asking repeatedly for explanations of things she could not understand. This quality, of not being afraid to keep asking, is something I think LIS should emphasise as an essential part of information literacy today.

Ada was herself, highly information literate, and Toole outlined what we know of her sources of information. On encountering the Difference Engine 1 in 1833, Ada attended the lectures of 19th century popular writer and speaker, Dionysius Lardner, and obtained blueprints from Babbage’s son, Herschel Babbage. She went to see the machine, and she held conversations with Babbage about the Analytical Engine. This appreciation of original sources is the foundation of contemporary research, but it is often overlooked in our modern fondness for a quick fix from the Internet.

For background research to her own work, Toole hand transcribed information from original sources in the Bodleian archives. Amongst a collection held by a friend, she came across a blue slip of paper, a letter written by Ada to her mother, which reads:

If you cannot concede me poetry, can you concede me poetical science?

This, now famous line, Toole stated, suggests to us that Ada was both her father Byron the poet’s, daughter, as well as her mother Annabella’s daughter, the mathematician. Ada’s abilities grew from a balance between art and science.

Ada later wrote that it was more important for scientists to have imagination, than for anyone else, as it was primarily the ‘discovering facility’. If imagination then, is still to be the ‘discovering facility’ for our computer science today, do we support and encourage this enough?

Ada’s ideas were taken up by Alan Turing, from a distance of 100 years, when he read the notes she made to Menabrea’s paper, following her translation of the latter’s account of Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Although Ada predicted that the Analytical Engine might one day write music, and saw that it could weave algebraic patterns, Turing took issue with Ada’s statement that: “this engine does not originate anything, it only knows what we know how to order it to perform” – this is known as the ‘Lovelace Objection’, which is, somehow unsurprisingly, far less well known than the Turing Test.

Toole further referred to one of the most important letters written by Ada to Babbage, in which she accuses him of acting for ‘fame and glory’, in contrast, she continues, to her own actions which are for ‘the benefit of mankind’. This theme kept reoccurring throughout the symposium, raising the uncomfortable question of whether we use developments in computer science for the benefit of humankind, and if we think so, do all of humankind benefit or just some? Toole ended by suggesting a ‘Lovelace Test’ to ensure this.

British Academician, Richard Holmes, spoke about the evidence we have for Ada’s understanding of broader scientific matters, and contrasted this with her ideas about the nature of discovery and imagination. He described Ada as ‘bringing all the disciplines together, around her’, and noted that her connections to many of the leading intellectuals of the Victorian era were likely underpinnings for this status. That it is often not just what you know, but also who, has important implications for teaching and learning. Although this is not an original observation, LIS should consider how to encourage networking, social skills and the search for inspiration, alongside the current obsession with gaining ‘job skills’.

Ada contrast

Photo of  slide from Richard Holmes presentation on 9/12/15: @lynrobinson cc-by

Holmes visualised his contrast with two images of Ada, which he felt portrayed the opposition of the ‘cool mathematician’, with the wild poetical Ada, the point being he emphasised, echoing Toole, that Ada combined these characteristics into a whole, magnetic persona. He showed that as a child, Ada wrote on an astonishing range of subjects, including: riding, waltzing, skating, harp playing, the piano, billiards and sea bathing. In later life, she married and had three children, yet also engaged in a series of ‘flirtatious’ relationships, demonstrating her ability to attract what Ada herself referred to as her ‘colony’ of people. She enjoyed opera, riding, gambling and literature. She had a good relationship with Dickens and was perhaps also known to Tennyson. On the scientific and technical side she displayed an enviably wide knowledge and awareness. In her letters she wrote about railway times and construction, bridges, airplanes and air balloons. She refers to photography and daguerreotype, and even evolution, being familiar with the work of Lamarck. Ada was interested in animal intelligence, mesmerism and how it could be assessed scientifically, steam boats, electrical induction and Faraday’s early field theory. Ada not only encountered many sources of information and inspiration, but possessed from an early age the ability to synthesise these eclectic engagements into new ideas.

Holmes offered us three close case studies of Ada, to illustrate more definitively her extraordinary, imaginative personality.

The Lovely Puff

Photo of slide from Richard Holmes presentation on 9/12/15: @lynrobinson cc-by

Firstly ‘The lovely Puff’ – Ada’s cat, drawn by her mother. Ada understood the complexity of animals, in addition to, and in contrast to, understanding the logical rigour of machines. Evidence shows that she talked and wrote about her cat with great imagination.

Secondly, Ada’s ‘Flyology’ (aged around 12, 1828), whereupon being in bed with the measles, Ada turned her thoughts to flight. She wrote to her mother about her proposed book, ‘Flyology’, and her hopes of inventing a method of flying. She imagined herself flying. She imagined flying horses.

Thirdly, in the 1840s, she further wrote on the power of the imagination for those inclined to intellectual thought, and imagined, in poetic form, what life on the moon might be like.

Holmes concluded by offering us a glimpse beyond Ada herself, into the lives and work of some of the outstanding people whom there is reason to believe influenced her thinking and understanding. The lesson here might be to surround ourselves with those who inspire us!

Firstly, Holmes mentioned Mary Somerville, a friend of Ada’s mother, who knew Charles Babbage, and who made it possible for Ada and Babbage to meet. Somerville was the celebrated author of “The Connection of the Physical Sciences”, which was published in 1834. At Babbage’s parties, Ada was able to meet other writers and thinkers, but she was undoubtedly influenced by Somerville’s writing and conversation.

Secondly, William Whewell, author of the ‘Bridgewater Treatise III’, and later the ‘History of the Inductive Sciences’ and the ‘Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences’. Babbage, taking issue with some of Whewell’s claims that science allowed for the existence of god, wrote in reply the un-commissioned 9th Bridgewater Treatise, in which he suggested that god had a giant calculating machine, wherein the extinction of species were a result of ‘conditional branches’. This shows us he had a sense of Darwinian evolution, but yet expressed god as a computer programmer. Ada had read both of these texts.

‘History of the Inductive Sciences’ sparked Ada’s ideas on the nature of discovery, and in particular, the sort of imagination that could allow discovery. She thought about writing a book similar to Whewell’s on how several specific discoveries were made, but this was never written. Based partly on her reading of the Treatise and then the History of the Inductive Sciences, and partly from what Coleridge wrote on the nature of imagination, Ada concluded that imagination was 3 things: the combining faculty, the conceiving faculty, and finally the discovering faculty.

From her dialogue/letters with Michel Faraday, on his Electrical Researches 1842-45,. We can see Ada’s understanding of the need to popularise science, in the same way in which she added notes to the Menabrea paper on the Analytical Engine.

Holmes also mentioned that Ada was familiar with Harriet Martineau’s work on Mesmerism, 1845, and with Alexander Humbolt’, Cosmos, 1846. He speculated that Ada may have read, and been known to Tennyson, as in his somewhat lesser known poem, The Princess, 1848, the heroine of Tennyson’s all female university is called ‘Princess Ida”.

Whilst there were also papers on how Difference Engine 1 worked, the meaning of Ada’s notation, and her novel insight that the Analytical Engine could not only process numbers, but could also use numbers to represent other symbols or musical notes, the question of whether or not Ada wrote the world’s first computer programme seemed to me to remain ambiguous.

In attempting to answer the question of ‘why do we care?’ posed in the title to this text, I would suggest that the conundrum of whether Ada’s notes and correspondence prove whether she was or was not, the world’s first computer programmer, will run for some time. The academic understanding needed to answer this question is significant, and undoubtedly grappling with the exact interpretation of her thinking is a valuable exercise for the mind. This is not why we should care however. Nor should we care too much about her indisputable value in emphasising the obvious; that women can possess exactly the same analytical and mathematical minds as men.

We care about Ada Lovelace because her story tells us about ourselves. In our detailed analysis of Ada’s life and thinking, we can see that imagination, a willingness to struggle with difficult concepts, and a prescient intuition of the value of both art and science culminated in her legacy of not just the computer, but of the need to be constantly watchful of how we use the technology she spearheaded.

Ada lived for only 36 years. Her most enduring gift to us seems to be the rationale that life is not about the technology, but that the technology is about life; what matters most is who we are for ourselves, and who we are for others. We all need Ada’s imagination, discovery and understanding.

Further Information:

Ada Lovelace Day

Ada Lovelace Exhibition at the Science Museum in London

Ada Lovelace Symposium on Livestream

Menabrae, LF, 1842. Notes from the translator Ada Augusta, Countess of Lovelance. Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage.