The Head of the BBC Science Unit didn’t just jump the shark; he did a backflip over it!

Yesterday evening the BBC4 television channel showed a documentary film about Ada Lovelace called Calculating Ada: The Countess of Computing. I haven’t seen this, so I can’t comment on it and this is not what this post is about. In the run up to the programme Andrew Cohen, Head of the BBC Science Unit, tweeted the following tweet advertising the programme.

Thank this woman for your smart phone. WTF! From all the inane comments that I have read over the years about the Countess of Lovelace, I think this one wins the prize for the biggest heap of festering bovine manure that anybody has, to my knowledge, ever uttered about her.

Whatever has been said about who was responsible for the notes appended to her English translation of the Menebrea memoire on the Analytical Engine, she or Babbage (and I still personally think that all of the available evidence points to Babbage as being their principle author) there is one thing about which all historians of computing agree one hundred per cent: Neither Babbage nor Lovelace nor Babbage’s machines had any influence whatsoever on the invention and development of the modern computer in the second half of the twentieth century and thus on your smart phone. In fact most of the pioneers who created the modern computer and thus ushered in the computer age had never even heard of either Babbage or Lovelace.

I’m sorry to have to say this, but Mr Cohen your statement is pure unadulterated crap and not something I would expect from someone who glorifies under the title Head of the BBC Science Unit.

9 Comments

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9 responses to “The Head of the BBC Science Unit didn’t just jump the shark; he did a backflip over it!

  1. Phillip Helbig

    Since he might not read your blog, I suggest that readers here email him, so that he learns the error of his ways and finds some sackcloth and ashes.

    Those who tweet can tweet appropriately.

  2. I propose #festeringBS as a new tag

  3. Also, since when was Ada a *17th Century* countess?

    • Oh, I didn’t see that ;)) Let’s be friendly and say it was just a typo. I’ve made worse myself.

    • Not to make too much out of it—maybe it was just a typo—but popular media does seem to have a general problem in identifying historical periods. I’ve noticed that television presenters typically talk about the eighteen hundreds instead of calling the same period the 19th Century. It’s as if they were unfamiliar or confused with the later way of talking or think their listeners will be, which may well be true. In my experience the past is an undifferentiated Olden Times for most folks while if you read a lot of old books and generally have a sense of history, the various centuries are quite distinct in your thinking. They have familiar faces, and you’re used to calling ’em by their names. They aren’t just numerical divisions. In fact, historians often talk about periods that are shorter or longer than exactly one hundred years—the long 19th Century, the short 20th. The 17th Century is, as it were, qualitatively different than the 19th, and you’d be very unlikely to assign a countess to the wrong one,

  4. The programme was rather better than you might expect from the publicity for it. Ada Lovelace was the daughter of Anne Isabella Milbanke, who was tutored in philosphy, mathematics and science by William Frend. Frend, Mary Somerville, and later Augustus de Morgan, tutored Ada because Anne had the idea that exposing Ada to mathematics and science would prevent the madness that Byron had showed. So there is no doubt that even before she met Babbage, Ada was well-schooled in science and mathematics.

    The programme did not go into the controversy about whether Ada was the first programmer, simply presenting the translation of Menabrea’s paper and the various programs including the program to calculate Bernoulli numbers as her own work.

    On the whole, the programme gave a rounded portrayal of Ada and, while it would not satisfy experts in History of Science, it did not contain any real bloopers.

    • Ada did indeed have various periods of maths tuition but as her correspondence with de Morgan clearly shows she never got very far and would almost certainly have failed A-Level (High School) maths

  5. Chris Mannering

    May I ask a question? Another recent documentary (my typical level for history) about automata made what I perceived as a really convincing case for one of the core arterial causalities running through the middle of that phenomenon. Programmable computing, the first factory machines, and so on.
    Must that too be handed in to #festeringBS

  6. Phillip Helbig

    Lots of Ada at WG, and deconstruction here. Discuss!

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