Christmas Trilogy 2012 Part II: Charles and Ada: A tale of genius or of exploitation?

This year Ada Lovelace Day, a celebration of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fuelled by the Finding Ada website and twitter account took off big time. Now I have nothing against this celebration and have actively supported it on this blog for the last three years; writing about Emmy Noether in 2010, a quartet of lady astronomers in 2011 and the first female professor at a European university, Laura Brassi, in 2012. I have also posted on other women in the history of science on other occasions. This year I, by chance, also attended, but did not participate in, the edit-thron for STEM women on Wikipedia held at the Royal Society. As I have already said I have nothing against this celebration but as a historian of mathematics and computing each time I do so I have very major misgivings about the organisers choice of figurehead, Ada Lovelace. These qualms were strengthened this month on the tenth, Ada’s birthday, as an echo of Ada Lovelace Day set off a flurry of biographical posts throughout the Intertubes, some of them old and merely linked, others freshly written for the occasion. All of them however had one thing in common, they were not written from original or even well researched secondary sources but simply regurgitated older fundamentally flawed largely mythical short biographies. There is nothing new in what I’m going to say now, in fact I’ve blogged about it before as has one of The Guardian’s excellent lady historians of science Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt. Even the much-maligned Wikipedia gets it largely right in its Ada Lovelace article. All of the short biographies state clearly that Ada was a mathematician and “the first computer programmer”.  Both statements are wrong. So what is the truth?

Ada, the daughter of Annabelle Milbanke and George Byron, was motivated to learn mathematics as a child (unusually for a women in the nineteenth century) by her mathematics fan mother to try to prevent her growing up to be like her “mad, bad and dangerous to know” poetic father. A stultifying logical education rather than a stimulating poetic one! Ada had various maths tutors in her youth including the aging radical reformer William Frend, Augustus De Morgan’s father in law and her mother’s old childhood tutor. None of these really managed to instil any real enthusiasm or ability for mathematics in the young Ada. Later as a young lady she became acquainted with both Mary Somerville, the mathematical translator and science populariser and Charles Babbage and became fascinated with the mathematical sciences. She received some informal tuition from Somerville who became her mentor and role model. Later determined to finally get to grips with the discipline she succeeded in persuading De Morgan, she was acquainted through his wife Sophia, Frend’s daughter, to become her maths tutor in an informal correspondence course. The surviving letters of their mathematical correspondence clearly show that although Ada is obviously the possessor of a bright and inquisitive mind she never really grasped several important fundamental mathematical concepts and her acquisition of the secrets of mathematics never progressed beyond that of a failed first year undergraduate. To call Ada a mathematician is a perversion by any stretch of the imagination. As Dorothy Stein, who has analysed the De Morgan – Ada mathematical correspondence in detail, puts it in her excellent biography AdaA Life and a Legacy (1985):

At twenty-eight, […] and after ten years of intermittent but sometimes intensive study, Ada was still a promising “young beginner”.

Having failed to master mathematics Ada now turned her attention to the occupation of Mary Somerville, her mentor, scientific translating. Quoting Stein again:

Translation was a good way to begin, whether or not original contributions were to follow. Mary Somerville, De Morgan and Babbage himself had all begun their published careers as translators. There was no reason why she could not proceed on a course at least as successful and rewarding as those of Mary Somerville and her mother’s friends Harriet Martineau and Anna Jameson.

In 1840 Babbage held a series of public lectures before an audience of eminent Italian philosophers and men of science on his Analytical Engine in Turin. This was a publicity exercise and Babbage’s plan was that the most eminent attendee, Baron Plana, should publish an account of the lectures creating much needed publicity for his cash strapped project. Plana declined and Babbage had to content himself with an account written in French by the young unknown military engineer, Captain Luigi Menabrea (who in a strange twist of fate would later become prime minister of Italy).  It was this document, which Ada, a long-time fan of Babbage’s calculating machines, chose at the suggestion of Charles Wheatstone, Babbage’s friend, as her first (and last) scientific translation project. (As a historian of science and a big fan of polymaths I find it fascinating that the physicist Wheatstone universally known by school kids studying physics for his Wheatstone Bridge (which he didn’t invent) was the inventor of the English Concertina.)

When he became aware, after the event, of Ada’s translation Babbage, never one to miss a trick, realised he had a great opportunity for a publicity stunt and suggested that Ada should garnish her work, in the manner of Somerville’s Laplace translation, with her own notes on the Analytical Engine; a suggestion that the flattered young lady grasped with alacrity. It is obvious from the extensive correspondence that Babbage controlled and supervised every single point and comma of the infamous Lovelace notes and it difficult to say how much of them is original Ada and how much Babbage expressed through a mouthpiece. Even some of the more interesting speculative ideas contained in the notes can be shown to be paraphrases of ideas first muted mooted in earlier Babbage publications such as his Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (1832) and his Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (1837).

On the question of who the first computer programmer was, there is no confusion what so ever and it was not Ada Lovelace. The Menabrea Memoir that Ada had translated already contained examples of programmes for the Analytical Engine that Babbage had used to illustrate his Turin lectures and had actually developed several years before. The notes contain further examples from the same source that Babbage supplied to the authoress. The only new programme example developed for the notes was the one to determine the so-called Bernoulli numbers. Quite who contributed what to this programme is open to dispute. In his autobiography, written several years after Ada’s death, Babbage claims that Ada suggested the programme, which he then wrote, although noting that she had spotted a serious error in the original. The correspondence suggests that Ada was much more actively involved in the development of the programme and should perhaps be given more credit than Babbage allowed her. Whatever the truth of the matter Ada Lovelace was neither a mathematician nor the first computer programmer.

Ada was not some sort of mathematical genius who conceived the first computer programme but was rather an intelligent but rather confused young lady who was exploited by Charles Babbage to gain publicity for his out of control megalomaniac computer project. However Ada’s annotated translation was elegantly written, as she, despite her mother’s best efforts, seems to have inherited some of her father’s poetic genius. It would in no way be amiss to describe Ada as a female science populariser or science communicator however if one were to choose one of these as a role model for women in STEM careers then Mary Somerville would be a much more obvious choice as her annotated Laplace translation was much more significant and immensely more influential than Ada’s memoir.

In general I find it sad that the organisers of Ada Lovelace Day didn’t choose one of the many real women mathematician and scientists out of history as their figurehead rather than a woman who was neither.



Filed under History of Computing, Ladies of Science

14 responses to “Christmas Trilogy 2012 Part II: Charles and Ada: A tale of genius or of exploitation?

  1. Pingback: Christmas Trilogy 2012 Part II: Charles and Ada: A tale of genius or of exploitation? | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Fiona

    An interesting post, although kind of sad. I will still think kindly of Ada Lovelace, she was still a girl who liked science and she was ahead of her time. I know plenty of women today who haven’t achieved much in the way of basic mathematical skills, and that’s with the benefit of a modern education!

    This is not related to you post, just a story that makes me laugh. About ten years ago I used to work with a chap who was actually Charles Babbage’s great-nephew. He was a non-exec on our company board. He told me that within the family they referred to Charles Babbage as ‘mad Uncle Charlie’.

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