I realise that in writing this blog post I am banging my head against a reinforced concrete wall, pissing against a hurricane, crying into the void and definitely not going to do my reputation any good with a certain class of feminist historians of science, but I cannot stay silent.
The Bank of England has announced that there is going to be a new British £50 banknote and that it will be graced with the portrait of a notable British scientist. To this end they have invited the great British public, renowned for their forethought and wisdom, see for example Brexit, to nominate potential candidates for this great honour. The only rules are that the nominated scientist must be British and dead! Upon this announcement going public Internet social media became an instant hotbed of wishes, suggestions, claims, counterclaims and sure-fire certs.
Unfortunately, the acolytes of Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelacewere immediately out in force shouting their, in their minds indisputable, claims from the rooftops and proclaiming their, in their minds unchallengeable, right to this honour for their saintly heroine in the highways and byways of the Internet. Unfortunately, the only criterion by which she qualifies is that she is dead. She was in no way by any meaningful definition of the term a scientist. Some have, however, pled that the honour should in fact not be awarded to a scientist at all but to a mathematician and that she would thus be an eminently suitable candidate. However, she was in no way by any meaningful definition of the term a mathematician and none of the recent published research on the topic does anything whatsoever to change this fact.
Although I have addressed this subject on a number of occasions on this blog let us briefly recap the largely mythical claims made on behalf of the good Countess. Indisputable is the fact that she translated, from the original French, at the suggestion of Charles Wheatstone, a memoir on Charles Babbage’s planned Analytical Engine written by Luigi Menabrea and based on a series of talks that Babbage had given on his planned computer in Turin in 1840. She was also asked by Babbage to expand on Menabrea’s original essay with an appended series of long notes. Indisputable is also the fact that these note were not compiled by Lovelace alone but in extensive cooperation with Babbage.
Note G of these appended notes contains the outline of a programme for the Analytical Engine to calculate the so-called Bernoulli numbers. On the basis of this note Lovelace has been incorrectly dubbed the first computer programmer. I say incorrectly, as Babbage had already demonstrated several programs for the Analytical Engine during his talks in Turin, some of which are outlined by Menabrea in his published memoir that Lovelace translated. If this were not enough Babbage actually states very clearly in his autobiography that although Countess Lovelace suggested the topic for Note G, he actually wrote the programme. In order to maintain their dubious claim on behalf of the Countess her acolytes either simply ignore this statement by Babbage or accuse him of lying. One interesting variant is to claim that the actual real first computer programme is the tabular presentation of the Bernoulli number programme that is appended to Note G and that this is alone the work of Lovelace. There are no such tabular representations of the programmes in Menabrea’s memoir. Again, unfortunately, in her correspondence Lovelace remarks on this subject that her table is an improvement on Babbage’s version. In what sense she improved it–simplified, made more readable, attractive, clearer–is not known, but this correspondence clearly shows that the tabular presentation also was originated by Babbage.
Not content with declaring her to be the first computer programmer, her acolytes moved on to making the, quite frankly ludicrous, claim that the appended notes show that she clearly understood the potential of the computer and computing much better than its inventor, Charles Babbage. Whilst anybody who can read must freely acknowledge that Lovelace can write considerable better than Babbage, whose prose tends to be rather turgid, whereas she has a poetic turn of phrase, such a claim can only be made by someone who simply ignores Babbage’s own extensive writings on the topic of the Analytical Engine. There is not a single idea or concept on the computer or computing in the Notes that cannot be found either in Babbage’s published writings, his masses of unpublished notes or his correspondence before Lovelace even became involved in the promotion of his project. At best she is a tech journalist and at worst Babbage’s sock puppet used by him to popularise his project and try to get financial backing for it.
Let us be generous and take the first option, this would make Ada Lovelace a female nineteenth century science writer, of which there were quite a few notable examples. It is not unusual that an intelligent, literate science writer can express the ideas of a scientist or inventor better for the lay reader than the originator of those ideas. That does not make the science writer a scientist or co-inventor, merely a communicator of concepts and ideas. If I, as a non-physicist, wish to acquire an understanding of the current state of quantum physics then I stand a better chance of doing so if I read Philip Ball’s Beyond Weird, than if I try to plough through the original papers published by the physicists who created the discipline. Ada Lovelace was perhaps a talented science writer but she was definitely neither a scientist nor a mathematician and thus although dead does not qualify as a potential candidate to adorn the new British £50 banknote.
I am personally totally in favour of a female scientist being chosen to adorn the new piece of British currency and a host of eminently good suggestions have already been made on social media from Dorothy Hodgkin, Britain’s only female Nobel Laureate, and inevitably Rosalind Franklin for her contributions to the discovery of the structure of DNA, to Jonathan Healey’s charming suggestion of Margaret Cavendish, as well as a whole host more of highly deserving and often neglected female scientists. So let us all nominate one of these genuine female scientists and not Ada Lovelace.